The Silver Linings Playbook

Matthew Quick’s debut novel is the kind that works best with its own soundtrack. This became clear to me on page 190, in a chapter called “My Movie’s Montage,” in which narrator Pat Peoples instructs the reader to pop a copy of “Gonna Fly Now” — a.k.a. Rocky Balboa’s theme song, and “perhaps the greatest song in the world,” according to Pat — into the CD player. His musical suggestion is meant to provide accompaniment to a sequence in which Pat, our hero, pumps iron, is chased during his daily jog by the woman who may (or may not) be his romantic lead, and learns modern dance from the same woman. That last scene also brings to mind Saturday Night Fever, though, we are told, the routine is choreographed to Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Conversely, the very first chapter also establishes Pat’s deep and abiding hatred for smooth-jazz saxophone soloist Kenny G, whom he considers his nemesis.

This, in other words, is a novel whose charm depends heavily upon a reader’s fondness for cultural touchstones of the ’70s and ’80s, particularly those that would be familiar to a person in or around their mid-30s. If one loves football analogies, or Philadelphia (land of Rocky Balboa), or the Philadelphia Eagles football team, one may feel particularly at home. But neither is necessary. Pat Peoples, we are told, feels like he is “now watching the movie of my life as I live it.” And his story, like the romantic comedies that inform its structure, is meant to appeal to a wide general audience. Like the reigning king of lad lit — that British guy whose likable heroes are equally popular on the page and when played by John Cusack, Hugh Grant, or Jimmy Fallon — Quick uses sports and music as a way to talk about squishier subjects. This is, at heart, a relationship novel about a guy trying to play catch-up between his social and chronological age and take his place at the grown-up table.

As the novel opens, the odds of his doing so are particularly slim: He’s a 34-year-old ex-mental patient living in his parents’ basement. The reasons for his incarceration in an institution he calls “the bad place” remain mysterious to him — he believes his time there was a mattater of months, rather than (as we later learn) four years — and he is singularly obsessed with “ending apart time” with his ex-wife, Nikki. No one around him seems to share this goal. All his wedding memorabilia has gone missing — his mother claims the house was selectively burglarized by a thief in search of expensive photo frames — and the young woman herself is conspicuously absent.

Never mind. Pat is a guy who believes in the movie magic of “silver linings” and “happy endings.” Thus, with the deluded optimism of a small, well-loved child (and he does have a very kind and accommodating mother), he devises his foolproof plan to become a perfect husband. With no career to speak of — he was once a high school history teacher — he channels the bulk of his frustration and ambition into full-time body-building regime of weight lifting, stomach crunches, and ten-mile-plus runs (while wrapped attractively in a trash bag, to sweat out even more calories).

Nikki, a high school English teacher, apparently had “swanky literary friend,” who referred to Pat as an “illiterate buffoon.” The new, improved Pat embarks on a reading regimen that would be familiar to any high school sophomore: Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Salinger, and — most unfortunately for a former mental patient — Plath. But he’s dismayed to discover that literature, unlike his beloved movies, rarely comes with a happy ending.

Fortunately for him, Pat seems to be in a plot of a different sort. Besides the love of a good mother, he’s got a well-meaning brother, Jake, who kicks in and buys him a season ticket to the Eagles football games, thus providing both setting and metaphor. Football, it turns out, makes all these guys a little crazy. On the downside, love of football once led to a jail sentence for Pat’s father and may still end his marriage. On the upside, even Pat’s therapist, Cliff, turns out to be an Eagles fan; he works football analogies into their sessions, as well as inviting Pat and his fat white guy friends to join Cliff’s and his Indian friends on the “Asian Invasion” bus for the more unorthodox therapy-through-tailgating.

While Nikki’s onstage presence is limited to a single, studio-posed portrait, Pat does find a female companion who more closely approximates his lifestyle: Tiffany, a fellow mid-30s former mental patient with startlingly good fitness and grooming habits who lives in a cottage in her parents’ backyard down the road. Their respective friends and family clearly believe the pair have a few things in common, but they circle each other warily at first, limiting their contact to cereal dates at the local diner and Tiffany’s habit of following Pat on his daily runs. He refuses to allow her to actually catch up, until she cons him into joining her — and the sweet sounds of Bonnie Tyler — in the Dance Away Depression competition.

The first half of this novel relies on the unconscious wit of a boy-man narrator acclimating himself to the manners of an adult world he has forgotten. The second half has its fair share of rousing, crowd-pleasing spectacle. Not that there isn’t plenty of darkness. But as Pat says: “I have to remind myself that all movie characters go through this sort of dark period before they find their happy ending.” Let’s just say this book delivers on the promise of its title.