Damaged People by Bonnie Rozanski is an engrossing family story, showing one family through events that are both huge and personal. The characters are believable and understandable, even when they’re not being terribly warm or likeable, and as the novel progresses, we see events and reactions to those events rebounding over the generations.
When the novel opens, Jack is a fairly unmotivated university student, halfheartedly studying business at his father’s request, and noticing Trina, a pretty girl working at Pizza Pizza. I’m pretty sure if we did a word frequency chart of Damaged People, the most frequent phrase would be “Trina shrugged” and I mean that in the best way possible. She’s either aimless or easy-going, a character combination that attracts and then torments Jack throughout their long relationship. Jack is caught between his father’s highpowered Manhattan world view and Trina’s shruggy lack of concern, creating familiar family tension. Both are believable products of their families, the result of parents who are the results of their parents, going back endless generations.
Damaged People shows us how Russ’ father reacted to tragedy, in plausible ways, even if those totally believable reactions set Russ’ life on its own damaged path, and then Jack on a path of anxiety. Russ’ aunt Grace, a biology teacher, ruminates on the recent theory that trauma is transmitted genetically. With a wonderfully realistic mix of scientific curiosity and Jewish guilt, she considers how Russ’ childhood events led to the kind of husband and father he became, and she questions if Russ’ son is also affected, and if she could have done more to stop it.
Bonnie Rozanski (also the author of The Mindtraveler) shares Jack’s anxiety with the reader by having his startup get a great deal on office space in the World Trade Center in the mid 90s. I couldn’t help mentally screaming, Jack! You’re heading for disaster! Get out!, every time he went to work, which is pretty much how Jack felt every day.
Damaged People is about how we are all doomed to failure and pain, and to passing that pain on to any children we have, no matter how we try to protect them, but the novels isn’t not nearly as depressing as that sounds. The story is told in weighted remarks over deli sandwiches or loaded shrugs, like the no-nonsense narration style I enjoyed in The Mindtraveler, so even tragedies never devolve into drama. Instead, we see generations of real, flawed people making their choices.
Damaged People will be released on June 27, 2017 by Merge Publishing.