In his debut novel, 2002's The Frog King, Adam Davies flexed a hyper-clever writing style that would have grated, were it not the perfect first-person voice of the book's narrator and central character—shameless, social-climbing New Yorker Harry Driscoll. Narrated with equally obnoxious first-person verbosity but with none of the gritty sincerity that made Frog King such a joy, Davies' follow-up, Goodbye Lemon, follows Jack Tennant, a 30-ish social worker/failed English teacher who returns home for the first time in years to help his dysfunctional family cope with their father's devastating stroke.
Dad's in a plot-heavy condition called "locked-in syndrome": He can see, smell, taste, and hear, but he can't move a goddamn muscle. Meanwhile, Jack's mother is your typical repressed, tight-lipped mother figure. His older brother, Pressman, is the typical burnt-out wisecracking drunk living in the parents' basement. His girlfriend, Hahva (yes, Hahva), is the typical perfect woman who gets fed up with her unappreciative boyfriend midway through the novel and takes off. Davies seems desperate to liven up his story's banality with Hollywood-level quirks and quandaries: There's both a long-deceased little brother and a sex scandal in Jack's past; Jack fetishizes objects like an old phone book and an orange flip-flop. And so it goes.
Such a steady slew of forcibly colorful details creates an effect somehow both cluttered and vapid. Davies also avoids subtext at every opportunity. When Jack feels hatred toward his father, he informs us, "I am full of hatred." When he considers how hilarious and tragic and stupid his treatment toward Hahva has been, he says, "It is all just hilarious and tragic and stupid." Davies is not a bad writer, as evidenced by little nuggets of evocative description like a rental DVD's "plastic case that is pigmented suspiciously like a love story—all peach tones and bronze." But his linguistic gifts are at odds with an emotional browbeating that cheapens every potentially poignant moment, moments that culminate in a drippy finale barely one step removed from the reviled "it was all a dream" resolution. A whopping four years in the making, Goodbye Lemon is as hilarious, tragic, and stupid as a sophomore slump gets.