By Mary Kay Zuravleff
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
294 pages, $25.00
We are all fascinated by the idea of a person being struck by lightning. What is the actual experience like? How harmful is it (since we know victims are not always killed)? What effects is the victim left with? Are they changed psychologically or spiritually, in addition to the physical changes? How do their families cope with such a shocking event? Or maybe I’m one of the few people who wonders about these things.
Either way, Man Alive! answers these questions with the story of psychiatrist Owen Lerner, who is struck by lightning while putting a quarter into a parking meter one inclement afternoon during his family’s summer vacation at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. One minute the family is about to get something to eat, and the next, Lerner is flying through the air and landing flat on his back on the sidewalk.
In the weeks and months that follow, Owen recovers from his physical wounds (entry and exit points of the lightning, skin grafts for burns, etc.). But it is his psychological changes that throw the Lerner family off its axis and into a spinout. The long months of recovery wear on his wife Toni’s patience, especially the changes in Owen’s personality: the frequent space-outs, odd and even offensive comments similar to Tourette’s Syndrome, and his preoccupation with barbecuing. Owen’s relationships with college student twins Will and Ricky and 16-year-old daughter Brooke become increasingly confused and fraught with misunderstandings. And Owen becomes his own ultimate psychiatric patient, suffering from several disorders at once.
As with any involving novel, Man Alive! is full of the conflicts large and small, profound and mundane, found in most families. But the stakes are higher. Will Owen ever fully recover and become himself again? Or is this new Owen the permanent Owen? What effect will that have on his marriage with Toni? What happens when the man you love is still there, right in front of you, apparently the same man he has long been, and yet he is not at all the same? Toni alternates between caring for and about Owen and being philosophical about their circumstances specifically and the role of accidents and health issues in the wider world. Driving home one day, Toni “loops through neighborhoods of oversize homes and early Bethesda cottages, knowing than mansion and rambler alike hold life-threatening illnesses, precarious finances, or the simply syrup of unhappiness that is part of every family recipe.” She is “as contrary as a magnet: some days, she clings to his side, full of love and gratitude; others, she’s repulsed by him.”
Zuravleff explores the characters, conflicts, and questions with sympathy and a cutting wit. She describes Fitzgerald High School in Bethesda-Chevy Chase on Back to School Night: “Banners in the atrium advertise the school clubs, from Nerdvana Tutoring and Home the Helpless to Gluten Free to Be You and Me. Ricky edited Great Scott!, the school’s literary journal, with Mr. Holt, and he was in Infinite Jesters, a math club.”
She takes Owen’s predicament seriously but also finds much humor in his shifting personality and struggle to reground himself in the life he has known. While in the hospital, he struggles to walk on his damaged left foot while wheeling along his monitors and bags of fluid. “His body has been divided up among the many specialists,” writes Zuravleff, “each of whom gets a bodily function, limb, or organ. Some of them get his machines, which give off the green, green graphs of home.”
The fast, snappy dialogue among the members of this smart, ambitious family provides much-needed humor to balance this serious examination of a man, a marriage, and a family. Readers get to know Owen and Toni intimately, for better and worse, as they are not always the most likeable or sympathetic characters; they are like real people, frustratingly unpredictable and multi-faceted. One of the pleasant surprises of this book is the realistic marital sex scenes; it’s nice to see a long-married couple engaged in spirited bouts of love-making that are both very sexual and crucial to keeping their relationship glued together.
Man Alive! is a character study of an eccentric and prickly couple struggling to overcome especially challenging circumstances. While the cleverness of the writing occasionally gets in the way of the narrative by reminding the reader how smart and funny Zuravleff is, it is an intriguing examination of the way extreme situations can utterly alter marital and family dynamics and how humans react to change both inside and outside themselves.