'Mr. Peanut': Dysfunctional Marriage In A Nutshell

Mr. Peanut
Mr. Peanut
By Adam Ross
Hardcover, 352 pages
Knopf
List price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt

When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.

So begins Adam Ross' debut novel, Mr. Peanut. Don't be fooled by the cute title — it's a dark tale of love, hate, murder and marriage: a cleverly written, structurally complex narrative with characters whose lives interlock.

Oddly — and disturbingly enough — the beginning of the book was inspired by a tragic story Ross' father told him about his second cousin. She was a "morbidly obese" woman who also "suffered terribly from depression" and "lethal nut allergies." Ross' cousin "apparently committed suicide" — although, "conveniently, the only person to witness her suicide was her husband."

The husband told police that he had arrived home to find that his wife was sitting at the kitchen table with a plate of peanuts before her. They fought, and at the height of the argument, Ross recalls, she ingested a peanut "and died of anaphylactic shock right in front of him."

When Ross heard the story, he was struck: "It sounded like an obvious case of murder," he tells NPR's Deb Amos. So he sat down and drafted what would become the first three chapters of Mr. Peanut, a novel that takes the story of Ross' ill-fated cousin and runs with it.

What Ross found particularly appealing about the gruesome tale was the way it "seemed to put its finger right on something that is so true about marriage — which is that at times, it is harder to understand what keeps couples together as opposed to what drives them apart."

Ross also found inspiration for his novel in the work of M.C. Escher, the artist who famously created mathematically themed black and white prints. In one piece, Escher invents a staircase that simultaneously seems to lead up, down and every direction in between. Just as that print shows one object that is actually several different objects at once, Ross says that Mr. Peanut is "the story of three marriages that tells the story of one marriage, or the marriage that tells the story of three."

As readers learn about the relationship between alleged peanut-murderer David Pepin and his late wife, they also find out about the relationships between the detectives on David's case and their own wives. The marriages all share certain similarities, interlocking just "like M.C. Escher's designs," Ross explains.

Each relationship also demonstrates how husbands and wives can shift between feelings of affection and hatred "almost immediately." These shifts are just as seamless as those in an Escher drawing, in which a viewer may be "looking at a staircase going up that suddenly becomes a staircase going down with someone sitting on the ceiling."

Adam Ross i i

Adam Ross' debut novel, Mr. Peanut, spins a dark tale of marital discontent and deadly legumes. Michael Lionstar hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Lionstar
Adam Ross

Adam Ross' debut novel, Mr. Peanut, spins a dark tale of marital discontent and deadly legumes.

Michael Lionstar

Ross says that the central question he wanted to address in his book is how two people who start out "so happily" can get to a dark place "where things can go so awry." In fact, says Ross, Mr. Peanut is "about as pro-marriage a book as I could ever imagine writing."

Then again, he admits it's also a "cautionary tale" — when married couples lose sight of one another for too long, it can lead to disastrous results. "In a way," Ross concludes, Mr. Peanut "is a way to wake up readers to what's right in front of them."

Excerpt: 'Mr. Peanut'

Mr. Peanut
Mr. Peanut
By Adam Ross
Hardcover, 352 pages
Knopf
List price: $25.95

When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God. At a picnic on the beach, a storm front moved in. David and Alice collected their chairs, blankets, and booze, and when the lightning flashed, David imagined his wife lit up, her skeleton distinctly visible as in a children's cartoon, Alice then collapsing into a smoking pile of ash. He watched her walk quickly across the sand, the tallest object in the wide-open space. She even stopped to observe the piling clouds. "Some storm," she said. He tempted fate by hubris. In his mind he declared: I, David Pepin, am wiser and more knowing than God, and I, David Pepin, know that God shall not, at this very moment, on this very beach, Jones Beach, strike my wife down. God did not. David knew more. And in their van, when the rain came so densely it seemed they were in a car wash, he boasted of his godliness to Alice, asked rhetorically if a penis this large and this erect (thus exposed) could be anything but divine, and he made love to his wife angrily and passionately right in the front seat, hidden by the heavy weather.

He dreamed unconsciously and he dreamed sporadically. His fantasies simply welled up. If she called from work, he asked, "Did something happen?" If she was late coming home, he began to worry too soon. He began to dream according to her schedule. "Taking the train today?" David asked in the morning. "Taking the train," Alice said. It was a block west to Lexington where she'd pick up the subway down to 42nd Street. At Grand Central, she'd take Metro-North thirty minutes to Hawthorne, where she taught emotionally disturbed and occasionally dangerous children. Anything could happen between here and there. On the edge of the platform, two boys were roughhousing. The train came barreling into the station. An accidental push. Alice, spun round, did a crazy backstroke before she fell. And it was over. David winced. The things that went through his mind! From their window, he watched Alice walk up the street. A helicopter passed overhead. On Lexington, at the building under construction, a single girder was winched into the sky. And David imagined this was the last time he would ever see his wife-that this was the last image he'd have of her-and he felt the sadness well up and had the smallest taste of his loss, like the wish when you're young that your parents would die.

There could be no violence. It was a strange ethics attending his fantasy. He dreamed the crane tumbling, the helicopter spiraling out of control, but he edited out all the terror and pain. There was Alice, underneath the wreckage, killed instantly or sometimes David was there, by her side, inserted just before the fatal moment. He held her hand, they exchanged last words, and he eased her into death.

"David," Alice said, "I love you."

"Alice," David said, "I love you too."

Her eyes glassed over. There could be no violence. But occasionally David became a Walter Mitty of murder. He dreamed his own agency. He did it. He shot Alice, he bludgeoned her, he suffocated her with a pillow. But these fantasies were truncated; they flashed in his mind, then he cut them off before the terminal moment because he never surprised her in time. He saw her recognize him as he came round the corner with knife, bat, or gun, felt her hand grip the arm that held the pillow over her face-and it was all too terrible to contemplate.

"Whale!" he screamed at her, because she was enormous. "Goddamn blue whale!" (She'd struggled mightily with depression but was now back on meds.)

When they argued, they were ferocious. They'd been married to each other for thirteen years and still went for jugulars and balls.

"Genius," she said. That drove him nuts. He was a lead designer and president of Spellbound, a small, extremely successful video game company. People in the industry called him a genius all the time, but during moments of doubt David confessed to her that the games they produced were inane at best, mind-killing-to his and to the kids who played them-at worst.

"I wish you were dead!" David screamed.

"I wish you were dead too!"

But this was a relief. The desire was mutual. He wasn't alone.

Later, after the quiet time, he apologized. "I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't talk to you like that."

"I'm sorry," Alice said. "I hate fighting with you."

They held each other in the living room. It was evening now and there were no lights on in the apartment. For hours they'd been sitting separately in the dark.

His love for his wife was renewed. How could he think the things he'd thought? They took a shower together; it was one of their favorite things to do. He put his arms against the walls and she lathered his back, cleaned the cheeks of his ass and behind his ears. When she shaved his face, she unknowingly mimicked his expression. Afterward, she ran a bath.

"You know who I was thinking about today?" David said. Things between them still felt delicate, bruised, and he wanted to make conver-sation.

"Who?"

"Dr. Otto."

She glanced at him and smiled sadly. Whether it was the associations his name conjured up or how long ago it was that they'd sat in his class-it was where they'd first met-he couldn't be sure. At the moment, David was sitting on the edge of the tub, Alice's ankle in hand. He had soaped down her calf and was shaving it carefully. Hair grew in different directions in different spots.

"Have you spoken to him?"

"Not for years. I read in the quarterly that his wife passed away."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"I'm sure he's had a hard time."

"And who hasn't?" Alice said.

She completely filled up the bath. Her triceps swelled out separately, like a pair of dolphin fins; her breasts floated like twin islands. And she had the most beautiful face, the longest, finest chestnut- colored hair, and fabulous hazel-colored eyes. But she'd grown huge, and David didn't pity her, though he knew it was difficult for her to carry the weight. At her maximum this year she'd reached 288 pounds. She'd bought a digital scale (doctor's orders) that flashed bright red numbers. She'd weigh herself in the morning as soon as she woke up, her hair hanging over her face as she stared between her feet.

"I wish I were dead," Alice said.

And he wished her thin for her own happiness, but for himself he wished she remained fat. He loved the giganticness of her, loved to hold on to her mountain of ass. If he made love to her from behind, he imagined himself an X-rated Gulliver among the Brobdingnags. It was the difference in proportion that turned him on. Closing his eyes, he exaggerated her size, made himself extra small, David holding on, his arms outstretched, smashing into her rear for life, life, life.. She was not his wife but a giant she-creature, an overlarge sex pet: his to screw, groom, and maintain. After they made love, she lay facedown on the bed, palms turned up toward the ceiling, eyes glazed open and body motionless (the weight had not deformed her, only intensified her curves, widened her like the Venus of Willendorf), Alice shot dead by David's potent love.

There were no children. In the end, it had been her choice.

"I was talking with Marnie the other day," Alice said.

David, working in his study, minimized the screen. "And?"

"She's pregnant."

Alice waited. David waited too. He put his elbow on the desk and rested his chin in his hand.

"And they just found out that their second child is going to be a girl," Alice said.

"And?"

"They only have a two-bedroom apartment."

"Go on."

"And the son, he can't share a bedroom with the daughter. But they can't afford a bigger place."

"So?"

"So they're going to have to move out of the city."

David took off his glasses, gently placed them on the table, then got up, walked to their bedroom, and leaned on the jamb.

"Can you imagine?" Alice said. She was focused on the TV; The Man Who Knew Too Much was on A&E. They looked at each other, smiled knowingly, then she turned back to the screen. She was deep into her second sleeve of low-fat Ritz crackers, halfway through her second bottle of wine. Crumbs lay across her chest and stomach like snow. At the edge of her lips were two upturned, grape-colored tusks.

David walked over and hugged her. When he squeezed, the crumbs on her shirt crunched.

"I'm glad it's only us," David said.

"Oh, David," she whispered, and pulled him to her. "Sometimes I don't know why you love me."

It didn't help everything, but it helped.

Excerpted from Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross. Copyright 2010 by Adam Ross. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved.

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