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Man Alive!: A Novel

Man Alive!: A Novel

by Mary Kay Zuravleff


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A warm, funny, and profoundly original novel about a family dealing with disaster, from a rising literary star

All it takes is a quarter to change pediatric psychiatrist Dr. Owen Lerner's life. When the coin he's feeding into a parking meter is struck by lightning, Lerner survives, except that now all he wants to do is barbecue. What will happen to his patients, who rely on him to make sense of their world? More important, what will happen to his family?

The bolt of lightning that lifts Lerner into the air sends the entire Lerner clan into free fall. Mary Kay Zuravleff depicts family-on-family pain with generosity and devastating humor as she explores how much we are each allowed to change within a family—and without. Man Alive! captures Owen and Toni Lerner and their nearly grown children so vividly you'll be looking over your shoulder to make sure the author hasn't been watching your own family in action.

A Washington Post Notable Fiction Book of 2013

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374202316
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/03/2013
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Mary Kay Zuravleff is also the author of The Bowl Is Already Broken, which The New York Times praised as "a tart, affectionate satire of the museum world's bickering and scheming," and The Frequency of Souls, which the Chicago Tribune deemed "a beguiling and wildly inventive first novel." Honors for her work include the American Academy's Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award, and she has been nominated for the Orange Prize. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a cofounder of the D.C. Women Writers Group.

Read an Excerpt

Man Alive!

By Mary Kay Zuravleff

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2013 Mary Kay Zuravleff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-05605-4



Everyone deserves a vacation from himself, Owen Lerner thinks, on the last day of his. He's convinced that spending three weeks at their beach house each summer makes him a better doctor and a better parent, if not a snappier dresser. Early every morning, face flushed with a good night's sleep, the sun lifts itself out of the ocean and travels across the summer sky, hanging out even as it warms the sand. Through such measured leisure, Owen catches up on his medical journals as well as his sleep, but he lets himself go, too, a year's worth of bacon and booze packed into three weeks at the Delaware shore.

This evening he is sporting the baggy shorts and soft rubber sandals he only ever wears at Rehoboth. He's missed a button on his lurid Hawaiian shirt, so that the excess shirttail hangs over his belly like a pennant, catching the wind the way a ship's flag might. Reaching beneath this flap, he fishes in his pants pockets for meter change and comes up with an inch of quarters—Lucky strike!—as if he's snagged a tuna from one of those monster fishing boats. First a parking place—on Reho Ave., in August, at dinnertime—and now quarters galore.

Nostalgia triggers the vertigo Owen has come to expect on the last day of vacation, when he's looking to the past and the future. Hard to believe that the twins, who resemble surfers from old beach movies, will be juniors in college or that his baby girl is sixteen. Hard to believe it's 2008. They've been coming here since the boys were born, back when the boardwalk was low-budget, greasy fun. Used to be, he could nickel-and-dime his way through August, springing for a waxed-paper bag of saltwater taffy if Will or Ricky had a loose tooth, or throwing pitches in the arcade (three for a quarter—is that possible?) to win Brooke a stuffed dolphin bigger than the dog. He remembers Toni as barely clothed. She wore gauze sundresses that were nearly as insubstantial as their house, which was a mere shack in the sand then, tar paper applauding the ocean breeze.

As Owen looks forward, his fistful of quarters brings to mind the patients waiting for him on the other side of vacation. Try as they may, his kids cannot play well with others, and the only rule they understand is that whatever they enjoy will inevitably be taken away. Owen's pocket change could serve as a lesson in planning ahead. Unfortunately, his patients can't anticipate what might happen in the course of a day; how can they prepare for a future that seems haphazard? Everything catches them by surprise, and predictably, they hate surprises.

His beach reading this summer has included a number of promising drug studies for his practice, and as he counts the meter fare, he's also mentally mixing meds to alleviate anxiety and boost executive functioning. At the same time, he's anticipating sliding into a varnished booth at Dogfish Head and having Axe mix him a drink with the house-made gin. He may even order onion rings. The cumulative effect of his thoughts is a moment of gratitude for the brain's plasticity: onion rings, gin, kin, and meds, all considered within the time it takes to manipulate a handful of coins.

The face of the parking meter is bubbled like a gumball machine, with forty minutes from the last parker showing in the window. Owen still considers time on a meter to be found money, that little bit of grace his wife will never acknowledge. A hundred-dollar goof in their favor in the checking account—Toni can't get excited about it, considering they have mortgages on two houses, two college tuitions, and two cars, as well as insurance out the wazoo. Spare change is all relative, he supposes. A hundred dollars buys thousands of meter minutes, not so many therapy minutes, not even thirty.

Malpractice insurance, therapy minutes. He'd felt the tide changing from vacation to vocation an hour or so earlier, while taking a shower to sluice off the day's sand and sunscreen. Upstairs, between toweling off and getting dressed, he'd lunged for his blinking cell phone in spite of himself. Outgoing message be damned, mothers filled his voice mail with their requests, listing the vegetable soup of disorders ladled out to their children: ADD, ADHD, OCD, ODD, PDD, SID. He was still standing there naked except for his glasses and cell phone when Toni, lovely Toni, strolled in from her bath.

"Stripped to the essentials, I see." She dropped her own towel to the floor and began dressing, unceremoniously stepping into plain cotton underpants as if they shared a locker room rather than an entire life. He admired her softening waist, alluringly belted with a thin stripe of tan, before it disappeared beneath drawstring pants and a crisp linen shirt. Her cheekbones glistened with some cucumber-scented mist she used only at the beach.

Although he clamshelled the phone, she waved him off. "Don't let me get between you and new clients. We're supposed to stay away from the boys' college fund until the market has time to recover."

"But they're in college now," he'd said.

"Them's the breaks." She shrugged. "As for us, it's a good thing Dr. Lerner's in demand."

And so he keeps the parking meter credit to himself, pocketing a few quarters and then, What the hell, retrieving them, intending to feed the meter as if it were a slot machine, either spending the time out with his family or paying it forward to the next carload of beachgoers. Earlier in the vacation, they would have left the car at home and walked to the restaurant; the boys would have raced each other there. Owen drops a coin into the slot, which adds a paltry seven minutes, and a second coin gives them only another eight, returning him to summers when a quarter bought more.

This last day on the beach has been a pleasant one: overcast but no rain, which makes for easier reading and, in general, a less beaten-down feeling (as if beach life were an ordeal, which it isn't, but after a bleached-white sunny day, occasionally riding the waves with the kids or shoveling sand, the first beer pulls him under). His itchy beard brings to mind the trim he'll get once he's home. Maybe he'll ask for a goatee this time, aiming for the fleshy Freud look. More likely, he'll be mistaken for a slender Santa.

"Behold, people." Brooke points out the roiling clouds that have moved in since they left. "I'm glad we're finished with our heliolatry."

"Verily," Will agrees. "And isn't the thunder vociferous?"

Owen's not sure if Will, the adoring big brother, is actually helping Brooke with her test prep or if he just enjoys releasing words, like viruses, into his little sister's vocabulary.

"That language," Toni complains, but she laughs when Will says, "Yeah, what the flux?" because that's her line. She looks at Owen over the top of her sunglasses and then raises her eyes toward the greenish sky. "We should have made do at home. We threw away so much food."

Ricky says, "We ran out of ketchup," and the rest of them concur. No ketchup, no dinner.

Truckloads of clouds flash their lights across the horizon before ramming into one another, and the resulting collision rumbles across the sky.

Brooke cups her hand around her ear. "It's a total cacography." When the boys don't respond, she ventures, "Harsh, awful sound?"

"You mean cacophony." Smugness deepens Ricky's dimple. "Cacography is awful handwriting."

Will says, "Like Dad's. Right, old man?"

"Occupational hazard," Owen says. Although he should feed the meter and get his family inside already, it's worth spending a few of the minutes he's bought listening to the kids. Maybe he and Will could take a week at the beach alone sometime.

Will says, "To remember cacography, think dadography. That's your mnemonic, Brooksey."

"Use it in a sentence," Ricky is saying. "Dad's cryptic scrivening, his crapulous scrawl, is cacographic."

Brooke looks sideways to make sure he isn't annoyed. He isn't. Family dynamics fall in a light sprinkle around Owen, who considers it healthy that they've united to mock their father. His motto, which he inherited from his mentor, is "The art of family life is to not take it personally." Judging from his reading stack, the money these days is on brain imaging, which can pinpoint the very nerve cells that tackle the word cacography. He wonders what part of the brain recognizes sarcasm—what sector distinguishes laughing at from laughing with?

The sky spasms like a lightbulb on its way to burnout, and that also reminds him of brain scans. An able-bodied head has vivid flashes of yellow, orange, and red as different associations flare up. However, the scans of autistic subjects are remarkably dark. In their brains, the lights are on for a literal translation of what is heard; as for tone of voice or facial expressions, not a flicker. He should resurrect the ear-training therapy he tried to develop twenty years ago. He'll have to ask Toni where she stowed the master tapes; he'd recorded hours of angry exchanges and excited chatter, friendly overtures and meddlesome inquisitions. In those days, the estimate of autism in the population was one in fifteen hundred. The newest numbers are one in one hundred kids—surely he can snag some funding with those burgeoning odds. He glances at Toni, who's focused on their daughter.

"I wish you'd put on more clothes," Toni says to Brooke, tapping her on the rump. Emblazoned across her tiny shorts, for some reason, is VIXEN.

"How about more glasses, Mom?"

"Don't tempt me." In addition to the shades Toni is wearing, her regular glasses squat on top of her head, and reading specs, suspended from a chain around her neck, rest on her chest, as if her breasts might be called upon to read fine print. Reaching into her bag, she tugs a fringed corner into an arm-length span of fabric. She pulls a second and third time until she has drawn out a shimmery red square that she wraps around Brooke's slight hips as the wind tries to undo her work, lifting the fringe to reveal their daughter's branded backside. The sarong Toni fashions takes Brooke past jaded teen to alluring island girl.

Owen says, "That's worse. Now she looks like a Tahitian maiden."

So Brooke leaves it on.

The attention she's been attracting this summer is disconcerting. In truth she looks remarkably like the pictures of Toni as a teenager, a little smaller and with darker hair.

Toni is lassoing her own hair into a hybrid bun/ponytail. She says, "I hope it's raining at home. Our yard is probably straw by now."

"Tinder," Brooke pitches.

"Kindling," Will says.

And then Ricky: "Tender kindling. Locofoco."

Owen is oddly satisfied when Will gives his brother's shoulder a shove.

"You're locofoco," Will says.

"Locofoco is a safety match," Ricky says. "Obviously, your test scores didn't get you into Penn."

"At least Mom likes me." Will lifts one foot onto a tall bike rack and then effortlessly steps up, climbing the three-foot rise as if it were a single stair. He walks along the rack's steel spine, which is slick and crisscrossed with handlebars, prompting Ricky to get on at the far end. They start horsing around, grown boys still trying to knock each other off-balance.

"Must we?" Toni asks.

Apparently we must. In the morning, they'll close up the beach house, handing bundle after bundle like a fire brigade down the line to Owen, who's in charge of fitting everything into or on top of the van, including what they don't want to leave for renters or lock in the shed. Once home, they'll repeat the drill twice more to return Ricky to Duke, Will to Penn. The scramble ends with all three children tucked in for the fall semester, he and Toni hunkering down to keep everyone in chicken feed.

But first, dinner. A moment ago, as Owen had slipped two quarters into the meter's slot, his fingertips had touched the satiny metal, still sun-toasted despite coming under the thunderhead's shadow. Now he deftly thumbs a coin from his palm to between his thumb and forefinger, a learned skill that has become almost autonomic. With pay phones being phased out or taking only phone cards, with jukeboxes demanding dollar bills, what is left but parking meters to oblige such dexterity? If he gave Brooke a few quarters, would she cup them in her palm, fishing around with her other hand to pluck out individual coins? Are there deft maneuvers she or the boys have developed via mousing or texting that have blazed neurological shortcuts in their brains? Has our internal wiring always been the same, or does the circuitry of playing Guitar Hero differ from that of playing marbles?

Knock off the shoptalk, Owen tells himself. If they've timed this right, families with little kids will be settling their checks about now, and they'll have a twenty-minute wait at most. And if Will's Kyra is their waitress, all the better. He fantasizes for a second how VIXEN could rightly be appended to Kyra and posts a mental note to encourage Will to visit her during the upcoming semester. Unless a father's backing of a potential girlfriend scotches that possibility. As Owen thinks about the observer affecting the observed's behavior, he hears a loud buzz, an intensifying hum zeroing in on him. He figures the noise for a beach plane trailing a happy-hour proclamation and questions the wisdom of flying one of those two-seaters through flashing clouds. All of this is happening as he touches serrated edge of quarter to smooth slot of parking meter, the barest of contact, and he is, literally, blown away.

His first reaction is, That parking meter packs a wallop! Of course he can't understand, inside the flash, that he's being struck by lightning. It's more like stepping off the high dive—and then plummeting into a hot spotlight of water. Neither inhaling nor exhaling, Owen feels heavy pressure on his ribs and within his sinuses—both his heart and ears yearn to rupture—while his arms and legs flail spasmodically, not in a swimming groove. More like a believer shot full of god, some maniac at a revival compelled to twitch and moan in languages not yet discovered before plunging into the baptismal font. He is white-hot as well as deeply quenched by the singed, syrupy fluid of his surround.

Water magnifies, lubricates, cleanses, and conducts, all of which is the case here. Water flows, and Owen rides the torrent everywhere at once, having been granted infinite perspective: he is looking down at his body, which isn't actually in water but is writhing on the sidewalk, his shirt ripped open and his white underbelly jiggling away; then he is eye to eye with his remaining quarters, which are suspended midair in the unlikely shape of a bell curve until one is picked off by a pair of sunglasses flying or flung through space; then he is somehow staring at his wife's new tooth, her square jaw unhinged to reveal her crown. Next, he is looking to the horizon, across the parking lot, over the boardwalk to the beach, all the way to the surf, which has picked up height and mass since they broke camp an hour ago, lugging their umbrella and beach chairs as well as all the sodden, gritty towels back to the house, where he took his last outdoor shower of the season; then he is staring straight up into the sky from somewhere up in the sky, shimmering with the crackling clouds and bright static that have knocked him off his feet.

Up among the ether, everything is so fucking clear, as if he's viewing his life through the Hubble telescope. He has never distinguished such vivid shades of gray, from the thundercloud to the sidewalks to the gum stains irregularly blotting the sidewalk beneath Toni's flaking silver sandals. Her chipped red toenails are an eye-popping contrast. He clearly sees Will's tenderness as well as his vulnerability, along with the long dent across the van's sliding door from his run-in with the principal's Prius. Brooke's strawberry birthmark shines forth, as does her skeptical squint, and he can detect the gap returning to Ricky's front teeth because he stopped wearing his retainer. How can there be a light in which his banal life is so complex and invigorating? They are but an urban suburban family who spend money like water—like water!—and who each go about doing mostly what is expected of them. And yet they are sublime, and he loves them to the point of pain.

Concern presses on Owen's heart and then releases it like a clutch, so that he shifts into transcendence. From this vantage point he beholds his wife and children as they are, but even more so. Toni is intensely beautiful as well as shockingly old, nearly half a century, and she is fierce with the expectations she harbors for the five of them; Brooke has every reason to be confident, what with her gymnast's poise and her mother's profile, but when had the world begun to bore her so?

With any luck, they will exceed Toni's high hopes as she lives to grow older still, and Brooke will be freshly amazed; such is the tolerance and optimism his height and warmth inspire. Seeing the twins from boys to men, Owen recognizes the danger in Will's dark wit and the sexual ambivalence in Ricky's neediness. He feels honored to know them all so intimately. Owen does not glimpse their future; however, to peer this intricately into the individual cogs, their teeth and their turnings, is to better understand how things might play out.


Excerpted from Man Alive! by Mary Kay Zuravleff. Copyright © 2013 Mary Kay Zuravleff. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. Inside the Flash,
2. Number One Son,
3. Thrown by the Blast,
4. Braziers and Spits,
5. Reset Mode,
6. Stop Making Sense,
7. Floating Free,
8. The Greeting Table,
9. Twins in Mythology,
10. Remember Me?,
11. I'm Not a Therapist,
12. A Mighty Hunger,
13. Whole Hog,
14. The Premarital Ooze,
15. Irrational Numbers,
16. Lightning Flowers,
17. Slip Sliding Away,
18. At the Bottom of a Hole,
19. Walking on Hot Coals,
20. Break Your Mother's Back,
21. Mount Olympus,
22. Nobody's Going Anywhere,
23. Whole Foods,
24. Out of the Frying Pan,
25. Into the Fire,
Also by Mary Kay Zuravleff,

Reading Group Guide

In Mary Kay Zuravleff's rousing novel of life and renewal, the pediatric psychiatrist Owen Lerner finds his world transformed after he is struck by lightning. He was simply feeding a parking meter, but in a split second he became a survivor—with an array of bizarre side effects. He is now impulsive, physically debilitated, and obsessed with barbecuing. His wife, Toni, struggles to care for him while she manages a stressful career. Their three children, all at an age of discovery about dating, competition, and other adult woes, go into free fall as they take on the role of their parents' rescue team. And Owen's young patients, who have relied on him to make sense of their world, find themselves in the hands of a doctor with a daring new outlook. With humor and a keen eye, Zuravleff captures the challenges of growing up, growing old, and feeling truly alive no matter what fate delivers.

This guide is designed to enrich your discussion of Man Alive! We hope that the following questions will enhance your reading group's experience of this wise and witty novel.

1. Throughout Owen's recovery, what positive and negative effects does his family experience? How would your family react to a situation like Owen's?

2. Discuss the way Mary Kay Zuravleff uses the theme of twins throughout the novel. How are Will and Ricky alike? What accounts for their personality differences? Which brother did you identify with the most?

3. What sort of caregiver does Toni aspire to be? What sort of caregiver does Owen need her to be? How did you react to their friends' reactions, from Pete and Marisol's absence to Charlotte and Ken's gift giving?

4. How does Owen's perception of his life change after the accident? What are his greatest concerns in the moments before he is struck by lightning? What are his sources of joy and comfort afterward?

5. Discuss Kyra and Will's relationship. What do they gain from each other, physically and emotionally? Do they remind you of your first experiences with dating?

6. In Man Alive! how is the human body presented? What marvelous capabilities does it have? What frailties does Owen encounter?

7. Was Owen well suited to his career as a pediatric psychiatrist? Do his injuries make him a more effective doctor?

8. Besides satisfying physical hunger, what forms of nourishment does Owen's barbecuing provide?

9. How does Brooke's experience as the youngest child, and the only daughter, differ from her brothers' sense of place and home within the Lerner family? How does she handle being one of her father's saviors? Is Natalio a good match for her?

10. When Will responds violently to the destruction of the LeJeune, his beloved bicycle, what other sources of rage does he confront? Is his reaction unhealthy? How would you have responded in his situation?

11. Discuss electricity as a symbol for the forces at work in this novel. In what ways is it destructive yet necessary for fueling life? What does Owen learn about his fear and pain through the electric art of Spaz's tattoo parlor?

12. In the end, why does Ricky decide to team up with Kyra to help his brother? What does he gain from his chats with Dr. Clifton? What does she provide that Toni cannot, despite her career in academia?

13. Discuss the novel's title. In your mind, what does it mean to be truly alive in this world?

14. How does the depiction of family life in Man Alive! compare to the way relationships were portrayed in previous Zuravleff novels you have read? What is unique about her characters' search for meaning and fulfillment?

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