The Lightness Of 'Everything,' Better Than Bearable

square 'Everything Matters!' cover
Everything Matters!
By Ron Currie Jr.
Hardcover, 320 pages
Viking
List Price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt

Junior Thibodeau, the protagonist of Ron Currie Jr.'s novel Everything Matters! has a unique cross to bear. At the moment of Junior's birth, forces beyond his understanding saddle him with the terrible knowledge that he and the rest of humanity have 36 years and 168 days left until a wayward comet collides with the Earth and brings an end to life as they know it.

With the supposed Mayan apocalypse (and eponymous disaster film) 2012 looming, it would be easy to dismiss Everything Matters! as just another Armageddon story. That would be a mistake. Currie's novel is extraordinary, a lively narrative that slaloms from the exhilarating to the numinous to the achingly sad, all tied together by the author's sharp, funny voice.

That's not to say that Junior's life is a barrel of laughs. A child genius, invisible to his peers and resented by his teachers, Junior wears his intellect like armor to protect himself from companionship, leading "a life beyond touch, wherein one eschews all physical contact to minimize the pain of inevitable loss." After all, how do you communicate with others when the only thing you want to tell them comes across as "the world's biggest, strangest non sequitur"?

The boy's father, a Vietnam vet who works two jobs, is strong but silent, not one to make shows of affection; alcoholism has turned mother Debbie into a kind of zombie. And Junior's brother, Rodney, though a gifted baseball player signed to the Chicago Cubs, can't keep up mentally after a childhood cocaine addiction — enabled by inattentive parents and a drug-dealing uncle — leaves him brain-damaged. The only person Junior can relate to is Amy, his first love, who counters his standoffish pessimism with wry humor — until he risks telling her about the comet, and she, thinking he's crazy, shuts him out.

Ron Currie Jr. i i

hide captionEverything Matters! is the second book from Ron Currie Jr. His previous work was a novel in stories titled God Is Dead.

Sarah Woehler Michaud
Ron Currie Jr.

Everything Matters! is the second book from Ron Currie Jr. His previous work was a novel in stories titled God Is Dead.

Sarah Woehler Michaud

Each of these characters narrates portions of the novel, and Currie endows them with believable, compelling voices. Other sections — like the novel's vivid and funny first pages, which take place in Debbie's womb — belong to the voices that Junior hears, the ones who first clued him in to the end of the world when he was just a fetus. They narrate in a deftly sustained second-person "you," coming across like slightly vexed cosmic bureaucrats with a little bit of a soft spot for Junior in spite of themselves. Meanwhile, Currie chops the text up into numbered sections, a running countdown from 99 to impact.

Junior's peregrinations take him from nihilistic drug addiction and despair to a "Chicken Little media tour" that gets him "disappeared" to a Bulgarian gulag, then to top-secret work for a ludicrously omniscient government agency that's trying to save humanity from annihilation.

Needless to say, Currie is walking a fine line here between the portentous and the twee; he succeeds because Everything Matters! is a small miracle of tempo and tone, filled with heartfelt moments that open into satire. Throughout, Junior is haunted by the question, "Does anything I do matter?" — a dilemma that turns out to have a more ambiguous, even heartbreaking resolution than the title's cheeky exclamation point would suggest. Currie isn't offering up a blithe affirmation of life. In Everything Matters! the title holds true not in spite of the void, but because of it.

Excerpt: 'Everything Matters!'

Everything Matters!
By Ron Currie Jr.
Hardcover, 320 pages
Viking
List Price: $25.95

In Utero; Infancy

First, enjoy this time! Never again will you bear so little responsibility for your own survival. Soon you will have to take in food and dispose of your own waste, learn the difference between night and day and acquire the skill of sleeping. You will need to strengthen the muscles necessary to sustain high-volume keening for long intervals. You will have to master the involuntary coos and facial twitches which are the foundation of infantile cuteness, to ensure that those charged with caring for you continue to provide food and clean linen. You will need to flex your arms and legs. Loll your head to strengthen the neck, crawl, stagger to your feet, then walk. Soon after you must learn to run, share, swing a bat and hold a pencil, love, weep, read, tie your shoelaces, bathe, and die. There is much to learn and do, and little time; suffice it to say that you should be aware of the trials ahead so that you may appreciate the effortless liquid dream of gestation while it occurs, rather than only in hindsight. For now, all you need to do is grow.

There is one significant exception to this. You may have noticed that you share the womb with other objects. The most obvious and important of these is the fleshy tether attached to your abdomen, known as the umbilical cord. It is, quite literally, your lifeline, providing blood, nutrients, and vital antibodies, among other things. Already it has wrapped twice around your neck, and while this may not seem to you, who does not yet breathe, to be particularly dangerous or untoward, it can imperil your entry into the world. We will not lie — it could kill you. Now, be calm. You should remain as still as possible throughout the rest of your gestation. While this will do nothing about the entanglements already constricting your neck, it will go a long way toward preventing further looping or other complications — vasa previa, knots, cysts, hematoma. Any of these problems, by itself, is not particularly dangerous, but two or more occurring together can be big trouble, so you should maintain perpetual vigilance against the many temptations to move. Of course, there are some who would argue that it is unfair to ask a fetus to exercise impulse control. You, however, would do well to avoid those who complain about life's unfairness, and instead get a head start on building self-restraint.

Light and noise present the toughest challenge to your resolve to remain still. They come to you through your mother's abdomen, and you feel an impetus to move toward them, to stir the viscous bath of amniotic fluid with tiny fingers and toes in an effort to absorb the warmth of sunlight, or hear Carly Simon trill. The urge to move is natural and understandable. As will be the case throughout your life, no matter how long or brief, the choice is, in the end, yours. Simply bear in mind that every choice will have consequences, and in this instance those consequences would likely be quite grave.

Your mother has one other child, your brother, who was a tornado in utero, so your lack of movement causes her alarm. We should mention that she is prone to unreasonable anxiety and nervous tension, minor disorders that have several underlying causes, not the least of which is the verbal and physical abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her father. This is why she pokes at you and spends hours with a transistor radio pressed against her belly, trying to bait you into moving. Despite the fact that her abdomen continues to grow, she wakes one night convinced you'll be born an ashen husk, your finger hooked forever into lifeless little claws. With this image lodged in her mind's eye she weeps, her hands laced together in a protective hugging posture under the swell of her belly. Now, a boy's aversion to upsetting his mother is among the more primal and tenacious instincts, and so you suffer an almost irresistibly powerful urge to kick and twirl, to give unmistakable evidence of your life, to turn your mother's sobs to relived and slightly embarrassed little hiccups of laughter. Do not yield to this instinct, or you will put your life at risk. Protecting yourself now means you'll have many years ahead with which to repay her grief. Besides, you can rest assured that this is not the last time you will make your mother cry.

Eventually your father's hands, along with two unscheduled visits to the obstetrician for ultrasound and fetal monitor, soothe your mother's fears to a level she finds tolerable, and she wraps the transistor in its power cord and returns it to the closet, and stops staring for long silent hours at the television.

Although the biological goal of sex was achieved with conception, your father still has a hefty sexual appetite (as does your mother, though out of concern for you she will not admit it). To you his advances are terrifying. You hear him seeking entry with his tongue and other parts of his body, and your instinct is to recoil, which is perfectly normal — the perception of one's father as an omnipotent predator of great physical strength serves as a vital function for most boys, and usually persists well into adulthood, though paradoxically it does not seem to preclude the desperate striving after his love and approval. You try to hold fast, but a stronger more immediate impulse toward self-preservation takes hold, and you kick against the uterine wall, pushing away from the sniffing and growling at the entrance to your home, and as you drift slowly up the umbilical cord draws tighter around your throat, and a knot forms.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Everything Matters! Copyright Ron Currie Jr., 2009

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