Thomas Dunne Books, 2013, 336 pages
Amy Gallup is an aging novelist and writing instructor living in Escondido, California, with her dog, Alphonse. Since recent unsettling events, she has made some progress. While she still has writer's block, she doesn't suffer from it. She's still a hermit, but she has allowed some of her class members into her life. She is no longer numb, angry, and sardonic: she is merely numb and bemused, which is as close to happy as she plans to get. Amy is calm.
So, when on New Year's morning she shuffles out to her backyard garden to plant a Norfolk pine, she is wholly unprepared for what happens next. Amy falls down. A simple accident, as a result of which something happens, and then something else, and then a number of different things, all as unpredictable as an eight-ball break. At first the changes are small, but as these small events carom off one another, Amy's life changes in ways that range from ridiculous to frightening to profound. This most reluctant of adventurers is dragged and propelled by train, plane, and automobile through an outlandish series of antic media events on her way to becoming - to her horror - a kind of celebrity. And along the way, as the numbness begins to wear off, she comes up against something she has avoided all her life: her future, that "sleeping monster, not to be poked."
Amy Falls Down explores, through the experience of one character, the role that accident plays in all our lives. "You turn a corner and beasts break into arias, gunfire erupts, waking a hundred families, starting a hundred different conversations. You crack your head open and three thousand miles away a stranger with Asperger's jump-starts your career." We are all like Amy. We are all wholly unprepared for what happens next. Also, there is a basset hound.
Amy Falls Down is a writer's novel. That is, it's a novel about a writer, making reference to other writers, and the writerly in-jokes are thick and hilarious. But you don't have to be a writer yourself to enjoy it, you just have to be familiar with modern literary trends, and you also have to appreciate a very fine writer who is a master of her craft.
I was delighted when I first discovered Jincy Willett's gem of a murder mystery, The Writing Class. Amy Falls Down features the same protagonist, Amy Gallup, a misanthropic aging writer who lives alone in her suburban California house with an aging basset hound. Amy was briefly hailed as a promising new talent, thirty years ago. Now she's a has-been who teaches writing classes. But Amy isn't bitter about the failure of her writing career to ever really launch. She never wanted the acclaim or the money. She's not, fundamentally, a bitter or mean person. She's just a born recluse.
Amy Falls Down takes place several months after The Writing Class, but while there are references to those events, they seem to be there solely to appease readers who read the first book, much like the reappearance of some of Amy's old writing class students. Amy Falls Down is an entirely separate book, in which I was even more strongly tempted than before to speculate about the degree to which Amy Gallup resembles Jincy Willett. The similarities are more than superficial, but Willett is such an intelligent and sly writer that she surely anticipates readers making that connection, so I'm sure she's made such changes as amuse her.
In this book, Amy, who has not written much of anything for decades, falls down in her own backyard and hits her head on a birdbath. Dazed and concussed, she then gives an interview to a reporter who was scheduled to come by, doing a "Where are they now?" story on washed up writers. Amy does not even remember the interview, but after driving herself to the hospital, she learns that she's gone viral. She has acquired, as her old agent tells her upon calling her up for the first time in years, "buzz."
"Hot Buzz," said Amy. Maxine had used different nonsense terms, back in the day. But if "hot buzz" meant what Amy thought it meant, Maxine's sentiment was brand new. She had never set Amy up as a potential generator of bestsellers. "Piles of money" had translated to "enough money to live on frugally for a year," which had actually been nice. Megabucks, Amy now remembered, was the term Maxine reserved for money writers. "You talking megabucks?"
"Hah! Now she wants money." More coughing. "Listen, babe, who knows. Maybe. The point is, you're going to be hot but for five minutes, tops."
"And then I'll be cold forever. Which was my cunning plan all along."
Despite Amy's reluctance, Maxine actually prods her into doing interviews and going on book tours. And more importantly... Amy begins writing again. Short stories, which promptly get sold to magazines like The Atlantic.
The resurrection of Amy's writing career is the driver for the story, but Amy Falls Down is really a novel about novels and novelists. In the course of her five minutes of hot buzz, Amy has encounters with a number of other novelists, all of whom are clearly satirical representations of real people, though with enough clever invention that Willett can plausibly deny whatever conclusion a reader arrives at by playing guessing games.
Jenny Marzen made millions of dollars, as opposed to nickels, by writing novels that got seriously reviewed while selling big. Amy had skimmed her first one, a mildly clever thing about a philosophy professor who discovers her husband is cheating on her with one of her grad students, and who, while feigning ignorance of the affair, drives the girl mad with increasingly brutal critiques and research tasks, at one point banishing her to Beirut, first to learn fluent Arabic and then to read Avicenna's Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb, housed in the American University. This was, Amy thought, a showoffy detail that hinted at Marzen's impressive erudition but was probably arrived at within five Googling minutes.
In the process, one can clearly see Willett delivering her own not-so-thinly-disguised rants about the state of the literary world. Amy is humane, funny, sometimes even warm despite her misanthropic tendencies and hermit-like inclinations. When she tears into someone, she does so with panache and brilliance, but almost never with meanness.
Consider the follow passage, which is not only a pointed, insightful, and funny satire-laced critique disguised as fictional narration, but is also just masterfully written. Not a word mischosen, not a phrase out of place, and Willett is not afraid of long sentences full of suspensive syntax.
Hester Lipp had written Where the Sidewalk Starts, an inexplicably acclaimed book of memoir, recounting — in severe language and strange, striking imagery — Lipp's childhood and adolescence on a leafy suburban street in Burlington. Her house was large and well-kept, her schooling uneventful, her family — the members of which she described in scrupulous detail — uniformly decent and supportive. Sidewalk was blurbed as a devastatingly honest account of what it meant to grow up middle class in America. Amy, who forced herself to read the whole thing, thought the book devastatingly unnecessary. The New York Times had assigned it to her for a review, and she stomped on it with both feet. Amy's review of Sidewalk was the only mean-spirited review she ever wrote.
She had allowed herself to do this, not because she was tired of memoirs, baffled by their popularity, resentful that somehow, in the past twenty years, fiction had taken a backseat to them, so that in order to sell clever, thoroughly imagined novels, writers had been browbeaten by their agents into marketing them as fact. All this annoyed her, but then Amy was annoyed by just about everything. She beat up on Hester Lipp because the woman could write up a storm and yet squandered her powers on the minutiae of a beige conflict-free life. In her review, Amy had begun by praising what there was to praise about Hester's sharp sentences and word-painting talents and then slipped, in three paragraphs, into a full-scale rant about the tyranny of fact and the great advantages, to both writer and reader, of making things up. She ended by saying that reading Where the Sidewalk Starts was like "being frog-marched through your own backyard.”
I love this writing, I love the characters, especially Amy's richly-imagined, wise, funny, slightly neurotic internal monologue laden with a writer's powerful observational skills. As you might gather from all the chunks I've excerpted, I loved this book. Despite not having the excitement of a murder to spice it up, it's even better than the previous book, and will appeal just as much to lovers of all things bookish.
Have you read Amy Falls Down?
Have you read any other books by Jincy Willett?
Verdict: I am convinced Jincy Willett is a quiet and underappreciated genius, and Amy Falls Down, while no more exciting plot-wise than its title indicates, is a true "literary" novel in the sense of being intelligently, unabashedly well-written — but meant to entertain, not to win awards and get praise from all the right people. 10/10.
Also by Jincy Willett: My review of The Writing Class.
My complete list of book reviews.