What if honesty isn’t always the best policy?
We claim to want people who will tell us the truth, but what happens when the truth isn’t necessarily what we want to hear? Would you really want to encounter someone who will not only see the bare, raw truth, but then in turn give it to you unvarnished? What happens to basic discourse if the gap between your truth and literal truth is revealed to be much larger than you allow yourself to see?
That’s what Ron Currie gives us in his new novel “The One-Eyed Man” (Viking, $26). It’s the story of a man – known simply as K – who finds that after the death of his wife, he can no longer process metaphor. That is, he is compelled to determine (and speak) the absolute baseline of truth, to seek semantic accuracy no matter what it might cost him personally.
Following the passing of his wife Sarah, K is adrift, lost in a world that he doesn’t understand nearly as well as he thought he did. A chance encounter with a physics textbook leads him to a mental place where he seeks out clarity above all else. This forthright literal-mindedness soon causes rifts – his quest for truth confuses friends and enrages strangers.
K’s condition gains notoriety following his intervention in a robbery. So much so that he winds up being brought in by a hedonistic reality show producer named Theodore who wants to craft a show around K’s inability to abide the delusions of others. With K’s new acquaintance Claire – a disaffected, quick-witted former clerk at a Whole Foods analogue – as a sidekick, the nation’s newest reality craze “America, You Stoopid” is born.
K travels the country, speaking to people of all different beliefs and faiths. And inevitably, he drives every one of them to anger at best and crazed violence at worst – simply by refusing to accept their ideas at face value. He simply speaks the truth as he sees it, and again – while people might THINK they want the truth, what they truly seek is affirmation.
Unsurprisingly, the show is a huge hit, with K getting confronted and assaulted by people from all over the societal spectrum. Self-styled progressives and gun-toting extremists, old people and young ones – even men of faith get in on the action. His provocations aren’t consciously deliberate; instead, they spring solely from that quest for clarity.
But when things go too far, K is left to determine what this crusade is really about – and whether he’s willing to sacrifice everything to see it to the conclusion that was all but inevitable from the very beginning.
Sometimes, you read a book and it floors you on every level. It tells a rich and engaging story while also wrestling with complex themes. It features compelling characters. The prose is deft, fluid and vivid. It has humor and pathos and wields them with both surgical precision and shaggy-dog joy.
That’s the kind of book “The One-Eyed Man” is.
Currie has drawn comparisons to literary giants like George Saunders and Kurt Vonnegut – and with good reason. Not only does he create perfectly imperfect characters, but he brings a linguistic fearlessness to his sentences that almost demands savoring; a second thought (or a second reading) often makes the funny lines even funnier and the sad ones even sadder. His sense of the low-key surreal is unmatched in his generation, which in turn contributes mightily to the implementation of imaginative ideas and a bold literary vision. And let’s toss in considerable satiric gifts and some keen observation of humanity while we’re at it.
Do you get it yet? This is a BRILLIANT piece of literary fiction, an exquisite deconstruction of American social mores driven by quirky characters and a propulsive narrative. It’s a work of sharp wit and breathtaking intelligence.
As far as my literary 2017 thus far is concerned, “The One-Eyed Man” truly is king.