I firmly believe the American Condition is rooted in family—dysfunctional families to be exact. All families are dysfunctional to a degree—whatever Tolstoy says—whether it be a weird uncle or a conspiracy theorizing aunt. Of course, there’s always the chance you will turn out to be the black sheep, and that’s where the magic lies in Spoonbenders, Daryl Gregory’s compassionate, heartfelt new novel.
It’s 1963, and Teddy Telemachus is a con artist who tricks people into believing he has telepathic powers. After becoming an expert at fleecing regular Joes out of their hard-earned income, he decides to test his powers of persuasion in a government study on ESP, and the unexpected happens—he meets Maureen McKinnon, who just might be the real deal.
In the summer of 1995, Matty Telemachus leaves his body for the first time. Matty is the grandson of Teddy and Maureen. Several years after Maureen’s death, and the family is in chaos. While she was alive, Teddy, Maureen, and their three gifted—truly gifted—children traveled the country performing incredible, unexplainable feats as the Amazing Telemachuses, but something happened on their first live TV appearance that changed everything: Buddy, Teddy’s son and Matty’s uncle, foresaw a future disaster, had a very public meltdown, and appeared to never recover.
The twisty narrative jumps back and forth between 1963 and 1995, circling around and around the points of view of each member of the family. The shifts in perspective are heartwarming—these people truly seem to love one another—and heartbreaking, as their extraordinary powers turn out to cause them terrible, personal pain.
Embarrassingly, Matty must deal with the upheavals of puberty just as he develops his remote viewing ability, and unfortunately for him, the two are linked, causing hilarious, hilariously awkward situations for both him and his poor mother, Irene.
Single mother Irene is a human lie detector. She’s got a steady job as a cashier at Aldi, but she’s yearning for something more. When a new computer mysteriously shows up at the house, she discovers the freedom of not being able to see the faces of the people she chats with on AOL—without seeing them, she can’t tell if they’re lying to her. Sometimes, she just wants the simplicity of believing what someone tells her, and the comfort of the little white lies that help relationships function.
Buddy doesn’t talk much—tries to avoid talking at all, if he can, since he doesn’t know what he might say that will trigger the chaos he foresaw in his visions of the future. His family has learned to accept the fact they’ll never get an explanation for the odd projects he’s always working on.
And poor Frankie. The youngest of Teddy’s sons, he lost control over his power, and over his impulses to engage in get-rich-quick schemes. He has a touch of Teddy’s con-man persona, but lacks the charm to carry them to fruition. In debt to the Mafia, he learns about Matty’s new power, and hatches a plan with the potential to put everyone in the family in very hot water.
I loved reading about this family. Every character is flawed, and every one is worthy of empathy. The writing is so smooth, and so compelling, it reads like a much shorter novel than it is. Matty Telemachus’s stories provide the framework—the beginning and the end—leaving us with the sense the future of the Amazing Telemachuses is a hopeful one, despite the obstacles that seem to keep jumping into their paths. It’s a wonderful story about a weird family—but no weirder, really, than any other—and the love that binds them together, against all odds.