Monday, April 23, 2018
Books

Review: Eckerd professor Lee Irby's 'Unreliable' reliably entertaining

Tragedies end in death, the traditional rules of genre say, and comedies end in a wedding. You won't find out which one Unreliable is until the very last page.

Maybe.

The new novel by Lee Irby is, as its title helpfully points out, a tour de force of unreliable first-person narration. It's a popular form lately, with a rash of female unreliable narrators — girls on trains, girls who are gone. The narrator in this case is a guy: Edwin Stith, failed novelist, former husband and ethically challenged college professor.

Eddie, as his mother calls him, makes no pretense of innocence, confessing on the book's very first page to a killing spree. But don't take that confession too seriously — by Page 4, he name-checks two of the masters of unreliable narration, Edgar Allan Poe and Vladimir Nabokov, in whose tricky footsteps the rest of the novel will follow. If you needed an elevator pitch for Unreliable, you could call it The Tell-Tale Heart meets Lolita.

Not that Eddie has a thing for a 12-year-old girl. He does have a seriously twisted relationship with one of his students whose name happens to be Lola, but she's well past the nymphet stage. Eddie does resemble Humbert Humbert, though, in his tortured self-regard, wicked sense of humor and seductive use of language.

Irby, who lives in St. Petersburg and teaches history at Eckerd College, has published a couple of snappy crime novels, 7,000 Clams and The Up and Up, set in Florida in the 1920s. Unreliable is contemporary (smartphones are a plot key) and set in Irby's hometown, Richmond, Va., whose haunted past is embodied in a gigantic equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee that plays a role in the novel. Richmond is also the city in which Poe was raised, and where he suffered from delusional episodes in the weeks leading up to his mysterious death.

As the novel opens, Eddie is returning to Richmond from Ithaca, N.Y., where he's a college English professor (but not at Cornell, where, he points out, "the great Nabokov taught"). The occasion is the wedding of his widowed mother, whom he hasn't seen for a couple of years, to a man he hasn't met.

Eddie is fleeing the collapse of his own marriage. His wife left him for a buff ceramics artist, and she's one of the people he hints he might have killed. He's also fleeing that passing strange relationship with Lola — they're not lovers, he tells us, but soul mates in perversity. She doesn't have sex with him — it's against his college's "Amorous Relationship Policy" — but does so enthusiastically with lots of other people, threesomes being her specialty. She enjoys texting him photos of the action, he tells us, "since she's a diligent documentarian of her misdeeds, a careful curator of her crassness, and a trained assassin who shoots only for the head, seldom missing."

Sounds like a good time to get away for a few days, but his mother's wedding isn't exactly relaxing. Her bridegroom, Mead George, is only a few years older than Eddie and, it turns out, works as an arms dealer — Mom's garage is stacked with weapons, and Mead interrupts the nuptial preparations for a meeting with a sinister Russian.

Then there are Eddie's soon-to-be stepsiblings. Mead's son, Graves, is surly and secretive; his daughter, Gibson, is way more than a distraction: "She's the sort of Norma Jean who becomes a Marilyn, meaning that she's in the process of burning through her beauty, and the conflagration threatens to consume not just her but everyone in the vicinity." Gibson is a stoner who fronts a punk band that "can't keep up with her," but against his better judgment (and even though she treats him like her chauffeur) Eddie is bewitched by her.

Thing is, Eddie is bewitched by just about every woman he meets (a bewitchment that goes hand in hand with an urge to violence). He runs into his old high school girlfriend, Leigh Rose Wardell, and they still connect. What's more, she's "stinking rich. The kind of rich that can buy private islands, make a politician bark like a seal, and cause Mercedes dealers to weep uncontrollably." Pretty soon he's drinking her late husband's $8,000 Scotch and fantasizing that she'll rescue him from whatever trouble he's in. But her brother, her erstwhile fiance and one of Eddie's childhood friends try to steer him away from Leigh Rose, for reasons she calls lies.

Indeed, as Eddie is busy lying to the reader, just about ev eryone else in the book seems to be lying to him. Is Lola really on her way to Richmond to ruin his life, or is she just texting him that from her dorm room as a new form of torture? Is Graves plotting to blow up the Lee statue? Does Mead love Eddie's mother or is he just after her recently inherited fortune? Is Leigh Rose crazy about Eddie or just plain crazy?

This smart, well-crafted novel takes place in just a couple of days, and as it careens toward the wedding its tension and wild humor grow. The question, though, is whether it's all madcap, or just mad.

"I'm confessing," Eddie tells us early on, "but I'm also conflating, confusing, and contorting reality, because who would want to read a book about a college professor who goes home for a wedding?"

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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