Troubled life shown in letters

Special to The Times

Michael Kimball’s “Dear Everybody” gives away the fate of its protagonist even before the novel begins: A newspaper obituary tells us that Jonathon Bender, a Missouri television weatherman, has killed himself, leaving behind what the police call a suicide note but what is actually “a series of letters to many of the people he knew.” In his final days, Jonathon writes to nearly everyone in his life. These letters -- along with interviews by his brother, newspaper articles and his mother’s diaries -- are ordered and edited by this younger sibling, Robert, who has spent his adult life estranged from Jonathon.

The proper story starts in 1966, the year of his conception, with a letter from Jonathon to his parents. “Do you ever wish that the sperm and the egg that became me wasn’t me? I’m sure that you must have been expecting somebody else from all of that pleasure,” he writes, setting up the complicated relationship that occupies his short existence. (Jonathon kills himself the day before his 32nd birthday.)

In the letters that follow, he relates anecdote after anecdote in which he clearly misinterprets how he fits into his family, his school and his community. These failures include simple misunderstandings, like when he refuses to eat alphabet cereal (“I thought that the letters were supposed to spell what I was going to be when I grew up”), and the truly alarming, like this confession to an ex-girlfriend: “You probably thought it was me who kept calling you and hanging up after we broke up. It was.” The earnestly pleading voice of Kimball’s well-crafted prose anchors these statements to Jonathon’s sad confusion, giving the book a gravity its quirkiness might not at first suggest.


The poignancy of Jonathon’s missives comes from how only some of these slights and mistakes stem from his family and mental problems. (He undergoes treatment for depression.) Others are just the hurt that everyone endures or causes growing up, like when Jonathon dates someone because she reminds him of an ex-girlfriend, or when he vomits on a roommate’s possessions after drinking too much in the wake of a bad breakup. As a young child, he spends a summer believing he’s been crowned Burger King after getting one of the eatery’s paper crowns, and as a teenager he soberly lists the pros and cons of his parents’ coming divorce.

Jonathon’s flaw is that he can’t differentiate between which events are par for adolescence and which are signs of something genuinely wrong. Kimball uses this to great effect, allowing the combination of Jonathon’s richly drawn disorders and his self-destructing family to cast doubt on the psychological cause and effect.

As the letters pile up, Jonathon’s voice is tempered by his brother’s commentary, which comes through in occasional footnotes and in interviews with their father. Robert is initially skeptical of Jonathon’s recollections -- right away he says that “Jonathon’s version may have been true for him, but I was the favorite and I don’t remember it like that.” In one of the book’s rare missteps, the truth behind the worst of these indictments is never fully revealed, leaving both Robert and the reader lost as to the severity of the father’s crimes.

Jonathon writes to his parents, his brother and his ex-wife, to his professors and his bosses, as well as to more unlikely entities such as Santa Claus, the state of Michigan and even a tornado he chased as a budding weatherman. He shares everything he is with those around him, and, by proxy, with us, the readers of his final document. There is a whole life contained in this slim novel, a life as funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking as any other, rendered with honest complexity and freshness by Kimball’s sharp writing.


Matt Bell has published stories in the journals Hobart and Caketrain and in “Best American Fantasy 2008.”