The Charm Of 'Spoonbenders' Is No Cheap Trick
Hardcover, 416 pages |purchase
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I wonder how many households of kids growing up in the late 1980s and early '90s had their ideas of the supernatural formed by the tall, thin black hardcovers of a Time-Life series called Mysteries of the Unknown. My family had them, and I don't think my parents could have told you where they came from. They just seemed to be library staples, with individual volumes like Psychic Powers, Mystic Places and Alien Encounters.
The Psychic Powers volume was far and away my favorite, and formed the core of my pleasure in reading Spoonbenders.
It's 1995, and Teddy Telemachus is a septuagenarian con man and card shark living in Chicago and beset by his psychic children. Lie-detecting Irene can't keep a job, psychokinetic Frankie's in trouble with the mob and precognitive Buddy won't explain why he's replacing Teddy's wooden doors with steel or digging an enormous hole in the yard.
But for one shining year, while Teddy's wife, Maureen, was alive, they were the Amazing Telemachus Family — until a disastrous television performance ended their career. Awed by the family's stories, Matty, Irene's son, dreams of putting his newfound astral projection abilities to profitable use. Spoonbenders cuts its deck across three generations and shuffles them together with the perils of washed-up secret government agents, aging mobsters and long-distance relationships.
It took me a while to adjust to some of the sleaziness the novel tries to sell as endearing — a teenage boy masturbating while spying on his cousin just isn't, regardless of whether or not it catalyzes his first out-of-body experience — and there were several annoying bumps early on where I resented being expected to empathize with well-meaning male voyeurs as they lied to women. But the story grows out of that, and becomes superbly engaging, balancing delightful wackiness with genuine tenderness throughout in a way reminiscent of Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem.
Spoonbenders is at its best where family dynamics are concerned: The perspectives of Irene, Frankie and Buddy at different ages are deeply moving, and Irene and Teddy's scenes together were consistently the most faceted, complex and affecting. I appreciated the dexterity with which Daryl Gregory shifts from surface hijinks to probing depths: Teddy's views on love and loving go from cheap patter to heartfelt philosophy; Buddy's odd behavior is wrenchingly rooted in his isolation and the trauma of his power.
I also loved how much the book dwelled in each of its decades, from the '60s to the '90s, and how deftly it laid the mosaic of the Telemachus family across time. I thoroughly enjoyed how much its present-day is grounded in the '90s; it's fascinating to me to read about adults navigating what I think of as the time of my childhood, and to see it represented through the lens of something beyond Saturday morning cartoons, dial-up internet and mysterious black books.
Ultimately, I'm impressed at how well Spoonbenders overcame a rocky start to leave me feeling as happy and satisfied as it did. Reading it is a bit like being tricked into a game of 52 Pick-Up only to watch the cards resolve, mid-air, into a Royal Flush.
Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.