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A mom battles ennui with drugs and affairs

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Kolsby is a playwright and screenwriter.

Listen to enough recovering alcoholics tell their stories and eventually the stories will seem eerily similar -- from their lonely, uncomfortable childhoods to the tremendous relief they feel when they take their first drinks. And, when the “party” is over, when the descent comes -- it’s usually the way Hemingway described the onset of bankruptcy: “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Such are the ups and downs of Laney Brooks, the antiheroine of Amy Koppelman’s powerful and hopeless new novel, “I Smile Back.” A Manhattan-born girl transposed to the Jersey suburbs, Laney is married with two young kids, too much money and way too much free time. So she conjures and re-conjures the memory of her father’s leaving, as she drinks, takes downers, snorts coke, stays up late and watches way too closely as her children’s burgeoning imperfections seem to point to her failures as a mother.

Though this could have descended into the scenario for a Lifetime movie, Koppelman’s instincts help her navigate these choppy waters with inventiveness and integrity.

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On one hand, Laney accepts the demands of being a suburban mom; on the other, she simply hates her life. Driving around in her SUV (“Good thing they put power steering in these off-roaders. Jersey shore in the summer. The Caribbean for winter vacation.”), Laney ponders another September: “Another year of elementary school: boring play dates, empty conversations. . . . Laney brakes for some broad making a right into the tennis center, pops open the glove compartment, grabs an Ultra Light. That’s a choice, Laney thinks as she lights the cigarette. Drop your kid off at school, smack a few buckets of balls with a cute pro.”

Laney seems to live according to an elaborate, if unconventional, laundry list. On her way home from a dalliance with a friend’s husband, she wonders briefly whether she deserves to live. Her mind wanders to her suicide’s potential effect on her children: “She’s certainly left enough clues . . . for them to know that it wasn’t their fault.” Her thoughts drift until, suddenly, seamlessly, she’s a child herself, and her father is speaking to her. Did he come into her room the night he left? “Did he say good-bye or simply walk out the door? Did his breath smell like single malt, or lo mein? Does it even matter?”

The book is constantly doing this -- mimicking the dissociative way the mind works, unchecked, into chambers of memory, to an uncertain future, then spiraling as it can into darkness and despair. This is achieved through a poetic, subjective, third-person narrative that brings the reader into Laney’s distressed, addictive mind while maintaining a clarity that makes her spin downward all the more insidious because it makes sense.

Still, like any story told from a suicidal, self-sabotaging, drug-addled perspective, a reader ought not necessarily believe everything encountered on the page.

As the novel picks up steam, certain details seem particularly outlandish. Like when, in a kind of “True West” turn, Laney’s insurance-salesman husband’s foray into writing results in the ludicrously titled bestseller “God and the Meaning of Insurance.” It’s not clear whether this is meant to be a statement about the decline of publishing, or of the American mind, or both. What is clear is that Laney’s father’s leaving, decades earlier, certainly makes her an angry young woman.

And anger has its consequences.

Stuck in a Florida hotel, her husband playing golf, she hits the pool. The cabana boy saunters over with her chaise lounge. Once she determines he’s from Minnesota, she asks him: “So which are you? A Dylan, Prince or Replacements guy?” She orders a Bloody Mary, extra spicy, and when he comes back, she “reaches for the celery stick, bites on it. ‘You’re going to think I’m crazy. . . . People must tell you all the time -- how much you look like Jesus.’ . . . And from the flicker of the sun on his still-white teeth, Laney knows she has him.”

In only a few months, Laney has changed from pampered matron to full-fledged saboteuse, all because she spends her life wondering -- to little avail -- which came first, the trauma or the addiction. If only she were as invincible, or as weak, as she imagines herself to be. For all of Laney’s ponderings, even with her forays in recovery (she is in therapy and in rehab), she can’t seem to rewire the mind that is bent on destroying her.

As she looks at her life, like a teenager smirking at a dollhouse she once held dear, she says of herself, “She had, for a little while at least, nearly had it all.”

But it’s not true, and she knows it. She was never even close.


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