May 25, 2011
A summer suggestion

I have it on good authority (my university’s alumni magazine) that a second volume of Kurt Vonnegut’s previously unpublished short stories is now available (While Mortals Sleep, Delacorte Press). That’s good news. Kurt Vonnegut brought to his writing an outraged ethic and an off-center humor that are sorely missed.

Fortunately there are still writers who drink at the same magic fountains that inspired Vonnegut. As evidence I submit Hoosier Life & Casualty (Casperian Books), the second novel of Ian Woollen. It is not imitative, but the same sort of fire, wit, and wisdom are there.

Woollen takes his readers on a complex journey. The most unlikely coincidences unfold with such simplicity that they finally seem inevitable. Take the circumstances that lead to the first meeting of the novel’s two primary characters. Marian Purlbaugh is the daughter of a family that has wielded wealth and influence in Indianapolis for generations. They are the founders of Hoosier Life & Casualty, a company that has only recently discovered the enormous profits to be made from high-premium, low-benefit health insurance. Elvis Scurvine has been raised by a marginally functional and poverty-prone mother obsessed with Elvis Presley; hence the name. This younger Elvis has grown up with frequent assurances from his mother that his twin, who died at birth, would certainly have been the better son. And how do Marian and Elvis, this distinctly odd couple, meet? Because a childhood friend of one of them steals the near-junk pickup truck of the other. When it happens it seems both highly unlikely and perfectly logical.

The city of Indianapolis plays a major role in the unfolding story. Hoosier readers will enjoy and recognize many of the details. Some, however, will surprise. For instance, the PsychClones. PsychClones are small tornado-like clouds that move along the city’s streets, apparently at random. They are probably the result of an experiment at Rosey Labs, the mega-pharmaceutical company in town, going terribly wrong. These seemingly innocent clouds will from time to time confront a pedestrian, uttering from their whirling depths a snide comment meant to focus on the exact center of a person’s greatest psychological vulnerability. Making a response is fatal. “If you ignore the cloud, nothing happens. If you talk back, you’re gone.” A wispy husk of the victim’s body will be found a few days later.

A relationship does eventually develop between Marian and Elvis. But they are imperfect human beings trying to make the best of very trying circumstances. Past loves haunt them. Their histories limit them. And family members concoct an array of nightmares that seems to be endless. But the whole adventure they share is a hoot. It bounces from board room to little league park, from gritty neighborhood bar to the yacht club. Elvis even gets to attend a concert of the Indianapolis Symphony wearing his one suit and presumably a pair of “dress sandals.”

In the end the final resolution is neither completely final nor fully resolved. But life goes on and the reader will surely feel the better for having gone along, perhaps even a little wiser. Is Ian Woollen’s Hoosier Life & Casualty a good summer read? Yes, and much, much more.

This What-are-you-reading-Wednesday post was written by Jack King of Bloomington.

Posted In: Miscellaneous

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