Digital painting of the columnist by Jennifer Herrold.
The Wide World of Southern Literature:
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
Esquire magazine recently ran a cover piece on Robert Downey, Jr. In the profile, he talks a bit about his first movie, Pound, which was directed by his father. It was based on an off-off Broadway play by its director, and the dogs in the pound were played by people, including a then five-year-old Robert, Jr., who still remembers a food fight that erupted among the crew.
“I remember being so excited that this kind of chaotic event was happening with grown-ups,” Robert said. “When it was over, I was still going around the breakfast room and pushing over orange juice glasses, and my dad was like, Kid, kid, kid. We’re done. We’re done. You missed it.”
This is a pretty romantic incorporation of chaos into a childhood, made all the more so by its specificity. It happened for a brief, beautiful moment. And then it ended.
In Kevin Wilson’s new novel, The Family Fang, the madness does not end. Caleb and Camille Fang are outsider performance artists whose mission is to bring into existence beautiful chaos that would certainly have been appreciated by the young Robert Downey, Jr.
Caleb and Camille developed as artists under the mentorship of a man named Hobart Waxman. “I used to tell all my students, not just Caleb and Camille, but any artist that showed some sliver of promise, that they had to devote themselves to their work. They had to remove all obstructions to making the fantastic thing that needed to exist. I would tell them that kids kill art,” Waxman explains, but Caleb and Camille refused to believe this.
Instead of letting their artistic endeavors suffocate under the burden of parenthood, Caleb and Camille add first one new performer—their firstborn, Annie, “Child A”—and then another—Buster, “Child B”—to their subversive troupe, based in Nashville and active throughout the South, where chances of being recognized are minimal in the malls and suburban towns where they stage their happenings: rainbow-like explosions of candy erupting from Camille’s clothes as she “shoplifts” pounds of sweets from a shop at the mall, Child A and Child B singing a dark and gruesome ballad to raise vet money for their imaginary pet: “It’s a sad world. It’s unforgiving. Kill all parents, so you can keep living.” The work is genius. No one is doing anything like it. No one ever has.
And yet, at the center of this work are the two unenthusiastic artists, Child A and Child B, Annie and Buster, suffering repeatedly for the sake of their parents’ art while longing for stability. What Mr. and Mrs. Fang call art, their children call mischief:
“‘You make a mess and then you walk away from it,’ their daughter, Annie, told them. ‘It’s a lot more complicated than that, honey,’ Mrs. Fang said.”
When the book opens, Buster is writing a freelance magazine piece on former military men who have used the hours of their unemployment to create the most powerful spud gun known to man. For a thrill, he lets them shoot a can off his head. Then he lets them do it again. The second time, the potato misses the can and hits Buster in the face. When he wakes up in a hospital, without insurance, he realizes he has nowhere to go but home.
Meanwhile, Annie is breaking down in Los Angeles. She’s a successful actress, a blockbuster-action star with Oscar-nomination indie-movie cred, but before deciding whether or not a semi-nude scene is important for her character, she walks around a movie set topless, and blurry cellphone footage of the event is instantly plastered all over the internet. The implication: She’s losing it. She’s getting old. She’s weird. Feeling lost and alone, Annie switches a flight last minute and ends up back at home, too, where she takes up in her old room, stocks a bar under the bed, and watches classic movies all day.
Annie and Buster sense that their parents have lost the artistic spark that once constituted their genius after they observe a failed performance piece. Just when it seems like the Fangs may not be something special any more, Caleb and Camille disappear, their car discovered near a bridge, bathed in blood, where other known carjacking and murders have been taking place.
While the sheriff’s department shows deep concern, Annie’s response is to order a new copy of one of her favorite movies, The Third Man.
“This one,” she said, “holy shit. It’s got a writer as the main character. And there’s an actress in it. And somebody gets killed but maybe he’s not really killed. Maybe he disappeared on purpose.” Buster shook his head. “Did you just ruin the movie for me?”
“If a movie is really amazing,” she said, “you can’t ruin it by giving the plot away. The plot is incidental to everything else.”
Initially unfazed—they are, after all, Fangs—Annie and Buster soon come to understand that they may be the only people capable of finding out the truth of their parents’ disappearance—and that their happiness may not lie in simply reconciling or confronting their parents or their pasts, but in coming to terms with the people they have become.
The Family Fang is a quirky, dramatic, love- and resentment-filled reflection on success, shortcomings, the ties that bind, and creation in all its forms—children, art, and identity included. It’s a coming-of-age story similar in tone and scope to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and a well-timed companion for the pop-culture obsession with prolonged adolescence, selfishness, independence, and inherited hang-ups. Everything is handled with just enough absurdity, humor, and playfulness that the novel never seems too bogged down by soul-searching, though the characters themselves certainly are.
Hobart Waxman, the Fang parents’ mentor, taught Caleb in particular that: “Art, if you loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it.” For a while, this seems exquisite, but there is a thin line between the beauty found in these spontaneous events and painful, awkward ridiculousness that can plague total dedication unencumbered by accountability.