*A LOS ANGELES TIMES BESTSELLER*
*A FINALIST FOR THE 2017 THURBER PRIZE FOR AMERICAN HUMOR*
Ken Pisani's sharp and hilarious debut novel AMP'D tells the story of a man who returns to his boyhood home after his arm is amputated, forcing the most awkward of family reunions as he struggles to feel whole again and falls in love with a voice on the radio.
"Hilarious and heart-breaking.” Jenny Lawson, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Furiously Happy
“Complete with painfully wry observations and delightfully caustic wit, this novel is a gritty exploration of what it's like to feel incomplete in the world. All five fingers up for this bitterly satisfying tale.” Kirkus Reviews(starred)
Aaron is not a man on a hero's journey. In the question of fight or flight, he'll choose flight every time. So when a car accident leaves him suddenly asymmetrical, his left arm amputated, looking on the bright side just isn't something he's equipped to do.
Forced to return to his boyhood home to recuperate, Aaron is confronted with an aging father (a former Olympic biathlete turned hoarder), a mother who's chosen to live in a yurt with a fireman twelve years her junior, and a well-meaning sister whose insufferable husband proves love isn't just blind, but also painfully stupid.
As Aaron tries to make the world around him disappear in a haze of Vicodin and medical marijuana, the only true joy in his life comes from daily ninety-second radio spots of fun science facts: the speed of falling raindrops, batteries made out of starfish, and sexual responses triggered by ringtones - all told in the lush, disembodied voice of commentator Sunny Lee, with whom he falls helplessly, ridiculously, in love. Aaron's obsession with Sunny only hastens his downward spiral, like pouring accelerant on a fire. Pressured to do something - anything - to move his life forward, he takes the only job he can get. As a "fish counter" at the nearby dam, where he concludes that an act of violent sacrifice to liberate the river might be his best, final option.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
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By Ken Pisani
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Ken Pisani
All rights reserved.
If this were a book you'd know that the guy you meet on page 1, shattered and mutilated and staring into the abyss, would by the end of the story transcend his terrible circumstances to become a better man. But this isn't a book, this is just me talking ... and I'm not the guy who beats the odds and overcomes adversity; I'm the guy who wakes up in the hospital to find out his arm has been amputated and says, Fuck me.
* * *
This is that moment, I realized as the doctor confirmed my sudden asymmetry, the second moment that follows the first. The first moment was the one that changed everything, when the SUV plowed into the midsized car I'd bought without driver's-side air bags. This second moment is the one when men stronger than I resolve to overcome this giant random hurdle, to rise above its indiscriminate awfulness. If I've ever been sure of anything it's that I wasn't strong enough in the second moment to overcome the first. And then I couldn't hear the doctor anymore, his words lost to a deafening tinnitus. (This would recur.)
In the weeks of rehabilitation that followed I was reminded to Look at the bright side, which did little to dim the glare of my own anger. I also had to endure You're lucky to be alive, that smallest of consolations, and It could have been so much worse, intended, I imagined, to provoke giddy joy that I wasn't left a human torso by the accident. And being right-handed I was supposed to take comfort in "only" losing my left arm, the one I've seen other drivers dangle with impunity outside car doors as if their vehicles were too small to contain such poor judgment. Yes, I suppose I should have been grateful that it wasn't my right arm, the one I use to sign my name and click my mouse and throw the ball to my dog, back when I had one (before the divorce), and reach across the car seat to clutch my wife's leg, back when I had one (a wife). But it's hard to feel grateful when you're rendered a quarter less than you once were in the limb department, and physical therapy hurts so fucking much.
When my mind wandered during rehab I tried to remember the accident, which still only comes in flashes — probably false memories, including an imagined traffic alert cautioning other drivers to detour around my inconvenient, mangled self, heard on my car radio as EMTs pulled me from the wreckage with the jaws of (my now ruined) life.
And then I'm sent home — not the home I had managed to toggle together after my marriage collapsed (an apartment slightly less crappy than the one I'd imagined would be mine should my marriage ever collapse) but to the home of my boyhood in eastern Illinois where my father, also recently divorced, offered to let me stay until I "got back on my feet," a tauntingly inaccurate metaphor.
THINGS YOU CAN'T DO WITH ONE ARM
Climb a ladder
Button a shirt
Open a jar
Toss a salad
Cut a steak
Put a shirt on a hanger
Drive a stick
Pet two dogs
Cover your ears
Use a bow and arrow
Push a wheelbarrow
Pump a fireplace bellows
Build a snow fort
Open one of those grocery produce bags
Scratch that spot just in the wrong side of the middle of your back
Play an instrument
I used to like telling people I grew up in Paris. Which was true, only it was Paris, Illinois. Eventually I figured out that this hilarious "joke" was on me: setting up a false, fascinating childhood only to deliver the punch line that it was in reality painfully mundane is as self-defeating as showing up at your divorce hearing visibly drunk. As time went on I grew content with being inherently uninteresting until now, as a one-armed man, I have a permanent, unavoidable topic of conversation.
Except with Dad, who refuses to mention it.
After driving three hundred miles to pick me up at the Illinois Treatment Center Hospital, even as I struggled, one-armed, to dress and pack (long since realizing that everything would be a one-armed struggle from now on), Dad never once mentioned the accident, acknowledged my struggling, or admitted my missing arm. Nor did he do so when he had visited twice before, once at the hospital immediately following the accident and again about a month into rehab at ITCH. Not when I couldn't cut my food or shrieked at a sudden stabbing pain, or stared blankly at the place my arm used to be. He didn't mention why we might have agreed, just a couple of days ago, that I should move back home for a while; and for six hours in the car and now, having arrived in Paris, he still hasn't mentioned it. Nor will he, I believe, up to and including the day he dies.
* * *
"Aaron ..." Dad has found it necessary to begin most of his sentences addressing me by name, three times — the first, lost like a rock down a well; the second, heard but failing to register, as if the name belonged to someone else; the third, a memory jolt of who I used to be. "We're here," he announces as unnecessarily as a masked gunman declaring This is a stickup! This is after all the house I grew up in, and eventually escaped from, and I recognize it: from the crooked carport that threatened imminent collapse upon our every departure and return and somehow remains erect, to the peeling shutters framing the upstairs window from which I dropped into Mom's zinnias, slipping into the night to commit random acts of juvenile delinquency.
The gravel crunches as Dad slows to a stop, turns off the car, and leaps from the vehicle like a stuntman on fire, unable to stand the heat of sitting adjacent to my stump for another second. He pulls my bag from the trunk with one hand and slams it shut with the other, proving this stooped, faded father is twice the man his son is. I follow as he trudges up the walkway, pants clinging to bony hips as if desperate not to fall. I recall all the thousands of times I followed this man into this house, thousands of moments jump-cut together and ending with this one that finds us both diminished. Dad pauses a moment, his hair darting in all directions like a flock of feeding geese suddenly startled, and then swings the door open without a key.
"You still don't lock the door? You were away overnight."
"What are they gonna steal, my Victrola?"
"Don't be cute, Dad. You own lots of valuable things. Or they could just be meth-addled psychopaths, lying in wait to bludgeon us to death with your toaster."
"Toaster oven," Dad corrects me, stepping through the doorway ready to face an even more formidable weapon than I'd imagined.
Inside, the house is just as I remember it, a funny thing to notice; certainly it would be more remarkable if it had somehow become completely unfamiliar — say, clean and orderly and not smelling of cigars. Mom and Dad lived like the Collyer brothers, saving things not because they thought they might someday want them but because it was easier to shove them into a dark corner rather than arrange for their removal ... or, in the case of stacks and stacks of magazines, that they'd "get to" them someday, despite the fact that Money magazines from the nineties weren't likely to be worth getting to. It only got worse after Mom left. You might think one Collyer brother couldn't do the work of two, but Dad would prove you wrong.
I trail Dad past rows of family photos on walls paneled with knotty pine and then upstairs, as if he were a bellhop and I needed help finding my room, which I don't ... until he continues past my room and tugs the rope unfolding the attic stairs, and I realize, I do. I stare back at the doorway to my room and suddenly know exactly what lies within. Unlike other children's rooms turned into home offices, sewing rooms, or preserved as childhood shrines after their departure to adulthood, my old bedroom is packed floor to ceiling with the flotsam of decades lived and a marriage gone bad. I twist the doorknob and the door swings inward about six inches before thunking against a landfill of old furniture, boxes, magazines, books and records, clothes, luggage, blankets, artwork, drapes, broken televisions, and other no-longer-transmitting electronics — discards that one at a time didn't seem to matter much until they piled up on one another like years; all stacked and filling every inch of the twelve-by-fourteen-by-eight-foot expanse that was once the domain of a boy and later prison to a teen, until his release to attend college in a city far away. Only now to return, recidivism imposed by injury. And forced up to the attic, the difficulty of which offers further evidence of a father's denial.
"It seemed preferable to the basement. No windows down there, and it kind of stinks. Can you make it okay?" he asks about the attic stairs, and I seize the opportunity to force him to acknowledge my missing limb.
"Why, what could possibly slow me down?" Dad shrugs, staring at my throat, inches from my eyes but miles away. I feel a flush of shame for pressing him. "I'll be okay."
"You go first. In case of the lunatics who broke in."
"Walked in," I correct him, but really, I know he's sending me up first so he can break my fall with his already broken body if I slip.
The first thing you learn about missing an arm is not the obvious — all the things you can't do without it. It's the havoc it plays on your balance, like a glass suddenly removed from a passing waiter's crowded tray that causes the rest to tumble to the floor. The simple act of standing up is difficult, and one lone arm swinging freely is a pendulum trying to tip you over. (And just try walking without swinging your arms.) Gripping the railing to pull myself upward, I can at least enjoy a momentary steadiness against the permanent imbalance of the one-armed.
When my head breaches the surface I'm surprised by what I find: it's actually quite livable, considering the haste with which it must have been thrown together. First of all, it's cleaner than any other room in the house, and freshly painted, although apparently the only paint handy was garden-shed green. Mine will be the dreams of a man sleeping inside a martini olive. Dad's unfurled a plush little area rug over the wooden boards that give ever so slightly under every creaking step, and he's somehow managed to get a fold-out couch up here. (I imagine ropes and pulleys and exasperated deliverymen suffering under Dad's shouted direction from the ground, perhaps having to replace a broken window afterward.) He's also hung a vintage black-light poster belonging to my older sister, Jackie, serializing in six panels the melting face of a drugged cartoon character and proclaiming, "Stoned Agin." Finally, he's taken all the books I remember strewn in precarious stacks about the house and organized them in a short bookshelf that runs the length of the attic, adding one disturbing touch: my old sports trophies from school and summer camp.
"We did the best we could."
"Your mother helped. And her boyfriend. He's a fireman." Good God, Mom's dating a fireman. As if he could read my thoughts, Dad continues, "She saw him on one of those charity calendars, Hot and Hunky, or some such thing. Went after him like a foxhound. He never really stood a chance."
"How old —"
"He's a lot younger. But your mother is a decade younger than me, so if you ask her, it's all the same. But I wouldn't advise asking her."
"Do they live —"
"Let's have an early dinner, I'm pretty beat from the drive." Dad trundles back to the attic stairs and submerges with the authority of a U-boat commander, safe again beneath the surface where the onrushing torrent of emotions swirls around him but cannot touch him, secure in his dry, airtight vessel.
I'm left alone in the attic, where the junkyard of a life is supposed to accumulate. Instead, I'm the remnant of a broken thing, stored here for spare parts should they prove useful at a later date before leaving the rest of me out by the curb. I'm nearly forty, divorced, woefully out of shape, clinically depressed, on "sabbatical" from my job as a high school teacher, alone, living in the attic of my father's house, one-armed. That last label, "one-armed," now punctuates every description that will ever define me, an exclamation point to all that preceded — a litany of life's disappointments — adding a final, sad coda to the person I once was.
Suddenly, I need to lie down.
* * *
In my dreams I imagine my missing arm looking down on me from the afterlife of dismembered limbs — legs lost to cancer, feet to crushing accidents, toes to frostbite, fingers, hands, and yes, arms. The arm watches and knows, He's fucked. This is not a guy who faces down hardship and emerges a better, fuller person. Those things that don't kill him do not make him stronger; they just further diminish him over time, until he disappears.CHAPTER 3
Randy Pausch was a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who learned in September of 2006 that he had terminal pancreatic cancer. A year later, he gave a talk at CMU entitled "The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," an inspirational monologue of life lessons in the face of certain death. It went viral on YouTube, getting eighteen million views and counting. (But, I'll point out, fewer than hundreds of music videos, a thigh massage instructional, something called "Charlie Bit My Finger," and the on-air meltdown of a beauty pageant contestant.) Pausch's lecture was turned into a bestselling book, and he became an inspiration to anyone struggling with a terminal illness, and an exemplar of human bravery.
But the rest of us are not like Randy Pausch. That's why we call him and others like him exceptional, because they are the exception; the rest of us are not brave or strong or fearless — we are not fighters against all odds, preferring the odds to be with us rather than against. We don't welcome the challenge of adversity but run from it, and the only struggle we offer when it catches us is to weep and flail and cry out for it not to be so.
We are not Warren Macdonald, a double-leg amputee who managed to summit Kilimanjaro in 2003, or Aron Ralston, whose self-inflicted loss of his lower arm saved him from certain death and freed him to pursue life as a one-handed adventurer. We are not Sir Douglas Bader, who lost both legs in a 1931 plane crash only to lead an RAF squadron during World War II; or Basque Naval midshipman Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta who, in the early eighteenth century, lost his left leg from a cannon shot, his left eye in defense of Toulon, and his right arm in the siege of Barcelona, yet subsequently captured eleven enemy British ships.
We are not Franklin Roosevelt, who overcame crippling polio to become president, or Stephen Hawking, whose mind would not be shackled by the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that claimed his body. We are not Helen Keller, or Randy Fucking Pausch. We aren't even Cher, with dyslexia.
The rest of us, when our bodies are broken, break along with it. And these heroic exceptions with their incredible ability to rise above the most awful circumstances imaginable just make us look bad.CHAPTER 4
Mornings are the worst. The disorientation of unfamiliar surroundings since the hospital — then ITCH, and now the attic — is compounded by hours of sleep during which the pain meds wear off, and the stinging realization, before I even open my eyes, that my arm is gone. Mornings are made worse by the dream interrupted in which, regardless of whether I am being chased by dogs, losing teeth, flying, drowning, or having sex with a woman I never met, I am always whole.
I start the day with a V boost (Vicodin and Valium), and Dad and I are in the car on the way to breakfast before the wooziness overtakes me. I'm not thrilled to be up and out in the world, especially a world as small as this one. It's still the place where I grew up; the only unfamiliar thing here is me, the temporary blemish of an angry pimple.
Excerpted from Amp'd by Ken Pisani. Copyright © 2016 Ken Pisani. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It's hard to find fault with this quirky and tremendously enjoyable read, which is all the more remarkable because it's apparently the author's first novel. It's complete with an improbable premise, great prose, and very interesting insights into how we hope to feel whole, even when both we and our world are broken. Then there's Pisani's wit; relentless, always clever and well-timed. I found it almost impossible to turn a page of this book without a laugh. (My favorites: The "Lists", the marijuana variety names, the Cancer Boy saga.) Bravo Mr. Pisani! Very much hoping to see your next novel.
Amp’d by Ken Pisani is a real treat. Take one 40 year old man, recently sans-one arm, force him to move home to live with his dad (who may have a mild hoarding problem) and his pet alligator (who lives in the bathtub) and you’ve got a recipe for hilarity. I’ll admit, the beginning of this book felt a little too literary for me, but I chuckled a few times so I kept with it. Soon enough I’d completely fallen in love with this story. I had no clue where the plot was going until the very end, but I was eager to read more about what was going to happen to Aaron next. Everything was so over the top and cartoonish it was hard not to love it. There’s a lot of drug humor, and I’m so not a drug humor kind of person, but these characters are just so charming. Besides, it was just medical Marijuana. Honestly, this is the kind of book I have a hard time reviewing. A lot of things happen. Most of it was funny. Maybe not fall over crying with tears funny, but consistently garnering chuckles funny. I mean, Aaron befriends a little boy with cancer, who he refers to as Cancer Boy in the narrative. He gets a job counting fish. Yes. Counting fish. I refuse to expand upon this, you need to read the book to find out more. He has a friggen alligator living in his house! That’s not to say the book doesn’t have any heart. There is quite a bit of emotion at the end. I didn’t cry, but the story literally came full circle and left me with a solid sense of closure that I feared I wouldn’t get from a book like this. I’m glad I read this book. And I know this review is pretty abysmal, but I highly encourage those who enjoy humorous tales to read this as well. Amp’d is a hidden gem.