Happy families resemble one another, as Tolstoy observed, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way — and Richard Madelin’s unsettling debut, Careful!, portrays one very unhappy family. An English widow, Alice, manipulates her youngest son, Lenny, into kidnapping his estranged older brother, Jack, who ran away from home years before but is now back in town, working as a cop. Alice is the prime mover in the novel’s deranged momentum. Raising Lenny, brain-damaged as a young boy, alone in a huge house, widowed by the suicide of a husband she never loved, abandoned by her older son when he was only 16, Alice is a one-woman hall of mirrors: here, paralyzed by her mania for order; there, willfully creating little scenes of chaos in order to feel alive.
Lenny, meanwhile, is old enough to work, and to drive a car, but as we learn through Madelin’s forcefully rendered interior monologues, he is also, intellectually, still a child. When agitated, he is visited by what he calls “the white space,” a shapeless entity both inside his head and out, sometimes sticky, sometimes hot, but always either the harbinger or the result of terror, rage or simple howling confusion. “The white space comes sideways when he can’t see it.” If Harvey the invisible white rabbit and Courtney Love had a child, it might look and act like Lenny’s “white space.”
Madelin is a British jazz guitarist and short-story writer. His first novel, ringing with neo-gothic echoes of Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates and even Stephen King (in his more consciously arty outings), shocks gradually and cumulatively, until one senses that Lenny’s white space might at any moment rise up from its pages.
CAREFUL! | By RICHARD MADELIN | Ig Publishing | 258 pages | $15 paperback