Life is funny—sometimes—and at other times it can be—unbearable. There’s really no way to be sure just how it’s all going to turn out, but one thing is for sure—you’re probably not going to get far as a guy in a giant dollar sign suit. Success in life might even require a healthy dose of maddening chaos combined with the stark realization of just how much you’ve messed it all up to bring you around. You might even have to suffer through the loss of someone you knew—someone you didn’t treat very well in life—before you realize what truly matters. That’s how it was for Charley Schwartz, anyway.
Marc Schuster has written a compelling and comically tragic story about a man who has to face the hard truths about his life, his friends, and his future. He might not have even noticed his inexorable trajectory toward the creeping sinkhole of failure, if it hadn’t been for the suicide of someone who went to the same school as he did years before. Anyone who ever attended Catholic high school or any school named after a saint can relate to what Charley Schwartz was going through, and belongs to a kind of fraternity or sorority alumni that inevitably finds you and asks for money. But this story is just a little too close for comfort in my case.
I spent my high school days at Monsignor Bonner High School in Pennsylvania. Our motto was, “Purity, Integrity, and Loyalty,” and at the top of the symbol is a reference to the Latin phrase, “Noverim me, noverim te. –The two parts explain one another: one cannot know God without reference to oneself and one cannot know oneself without reference to God.” This relates back to the Augustinian Friars who taught at the school for fifty-six years, four of which included my high school years. Not only could I relate to Charley as someone struggling to find himself through his years after attending the “Academy,” but we also had to face the suicide of one of our own some years later.
Fortunately, in my case, I wasn’t the one with memories of treating people poorly. Unfortunately, I was the one on the receiving end of that arrangement. I was the creative sort; a bit geeky, loved writing and the Arts and Theater. I never seemed to fit in with any of the kinds of characters in the Grievers, but I knew them all, and Marc Schuster has done a damn fine job of evoking the memories and flashbacks that made me feel like I was there all over again. While reading this gem of a novel, I laughed a lot even though my experience was nowhere near as humorous as Charley Schwartz’s. I even went back into the archives and dug up this photo from the yearbook, which shows that I actually succeeded at something.
Our school had a literary magazine called, “The New Spectator,” and they let me write the little blurb in the yearbook that went along with the photo. As a senior, I finally made something happen. Go figure.
The last three chapters really grabbed me. They bring together all the craziness and wisecracks and sadness, and build up to a nail biting car chase scene worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster, and it concludes with such poignancy and satisfaction for the reader, that I actually kind of wish Marc hadn’t ended it right there. I found myself cheering for Charley, and wanting to know just how he would turn all that madness into a future.
A delight to read and filled with such a variety of characters and so many moments of just plain craziness, that you almost want to reach through the book and grab Charley by the shoulders and shake him. What is he doing hanging around with all these crazy people? When I got to the part where Charley gets up to speak at the memorial service, I actually had to stop for a minute. It is quite a moment, and worth a long, hard look for anyone who is grieving.
I had the opportunity to meet Marc and his lovely wife, Kerri, and I couldn’t shake the image of the two of them the whole time I was reading. Marc is a great deal more accomplished than Charley, and I’m sure Kerri is probably different than Charley’s wife, Karen in the story, but it seems to me that Karen was the only sane part of Charley’s life, and Kerri impressed me as the sane one too.
I recommend this book wholeheartedly, and hope for much continued success for Marc in his sometimes funny life.