According to conventional wisdom novels and short stories are completely different species, and never the twain shall meet. In To Do the Deal: A Novel in Stories, Cathy Baker shows us that, in the hands of a master craftsman, conventional wisdom is wrong.
To Do the Deal is the story – actually ten stories – of Kenneth Bodine, a man in search of himself. It starts in 1991, when Ken breaks up with his girlfriend, known only as Watermelon, and meets Jodine, who is about to break up with her boyfriend. After the two successfully break off their unfortunate hookups and end up with each other, what follows is a series of ten stand-alone short stories that take us to the year 2000 – as Ken moves from job to job, eventually ending up in sales, where he shines, despite his absolute lack of people skills.
Each story is a self-contained episode in Ken’s increasingly chaotic life, but each also segues seamlessly into the next. Baker has created the perfect born loser in Ken, the model put upon housewife/mother in Jodi, and a cast of supporting characters that, if you’ve ever experienced the suburbs of Washington, DC, you’ll swear you’ve lived next door to them. The humor in To Do the Deal is understated, tongue-in-cheek, that sneaks up on you, gently grabs your funny bone, and before you know it, has you clutching your sides and blinking back tears. At times you feel sorry for Ken, and at others, you want to give him a solid kick in the rear – all the while, you’re chuckling at the predicaments he manages to get himself into.
There are no surprises in this book, but it is not predictable. It ends in the best possible way, given the state of mind of the main character and the effect he has on everyone with whom he comes into contact. Despite the lack of surprise, it is satisfying because you find yourself saying, ‘but for the grace of God, that’s where I’d be.’ Baker’s use of domestic banter between Ken and Jodi (which, given the last name she acquired at marriage, is what Jodine prefers to be called) is so realistic, you feel like a voyeur reading it. She does a particularly good job in describing the relationship Ken and Jodi have with their children – just ask anyone who has had to raise kids in today’s economy. Between episodes of humor, the author also describes human relationships in a way that is so spot on, you wonder if she wasn’t a psychologist in another life.
If you want a good weekend read, this is a definite ‘must-read.’ One of the best books I’ve read this year.
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