In the story of the hyper-flawed Flanagans, whimsy and melodrama come crashing together. What might be frothy in lesser hands becomes, in those of Elizabeth Kelly, remarkably rich. Collie, named for the dog breed, is born into a family as wealthy as it is nuts, in a sprawling house on Martha’s Vineyard. Nine months later, another son arrives, a charming rapscallion beloved by all. Rather than parent, their “professionally Irish” dad elevates drinking into high art, while their mom attempts to illustrate why her own imperious father deserves to be hated, complete with charts. Practical, with a predilection for self-awareness, poor Collie earns his mother’s scorn (she calls him “good little comptroller”) and his grandfather’s admiration. Then an accident recalibrates the dynamics, and suddenly Collie’s no longer just the family’s straight man.
Since nobody could be harder on this young man than he is on himself, his struggles have a relatable poignancy even as the plot tends toward the outrageous. Nevertheless, Kelly’s sparkling writing in Apologize, Apologize! keeps it all going: a character has “red hair shining like his personal sunset,” someone else looks like “an effete fugitive from Wallis Simpson’s id.” Attempting a life lesson, in a speech worthy of a Wes Anderson movie, Collie’s dad remarks, “[S]ometimes this I-slash-me business just gets you down.” Who could disagree? Like her filmic counterpart, Kelly recognizes that beneath feigned simplicity, burnished irony, or even operatic antics often resides a wellspring of true feeling. This charismatic debut taps into it, and leaves it behind.