Harrowing scenes from a marriage

Adam Ross' debut novel "Mr. Peanut" tells the story of David Pepin, a successful New York City video game designer who may or may not have killed his wife, who's being investigated by two detectives.

Adam Ross' debut novel "Mr. Peanut" tells the story of David Pepin, a successful New York City video game designer who may or may not have killed his wife, who's being investigated by two detectives.

One of these detectives may or may not have killed his own wife -- though that crime seems to have taken place (or not) more than 50 years earlier. The other detective, Hastroll, returns home one day to discover that his wife has taken to their bed in depression -- a scenario that eerily echoes David's troubles with his wife, Alice.

One other important detail: David happens to be struggling to finish a novel -- a novel whose first sentence happens to be the first sentence of "Mr. Peanut."

Exasperated, yet? A puzzlebox thriller that only very slowly yields its secrets, "Mr. Peanut" might have easily devolved into a tedious postmodern stunt. That it doesn't is a considerable testament to the tight grip Ross has on his shifty premise, and to the mordant bite of his prose, which pulls no punches in anatomizing the decay of these three marriages. Consider this passage from early in the novel, about David's ongoing fantasies about Alice dying. Like so much of the book, it walks an exquisite line between drollery and sheer evil.

"There could be no violence. It was a strange ethics attending his fantasy. He dreamed the crane tumbling, the helicopter spiraling out of control, but he edited out all the terror and pain. There was Alice, underneath the wreckage, killed instantly, or sometimes David was there, by her side, inserted just before the fatal moment. He held her hand, they exchanged last words, and he eased her into death."


As it turns out, Alice does end up dead, discovered at the kitchen table, "her lips ... grossly swollen, pink as intestine and distended as slugs," having suffered a severe allergic reaction to peanuts. Was it an act of suicide by the once severely overweight, but now thin Alice, who struggled mightily with depression? Did David force the nuts upon her, so that he could continue an affair with a beautiful young designer at his work?

The first third of "Mr. Peanut" is a marvelous procedural that leaps back and forth in time, as we learn about the history of David and Alice's marriage, including a tragic trip to Hawaii, when Alice miscarried mid-flight. But strange details and surreal flourishes keep interrupting this domestic melodrama: an assassin named Mobius, a la "the Mobius Strip" (a "non-orientable surface" that has no beginning or ending), who David may or may not have hired to kill Alice; an airline grief counselor who aids David and Alice after the miscarriage. You search for clues, but it's impossible to determine where reality ends and fantasy begins.

And then, just when you think you're starting to get a handle on David and Alice's story, "Mr. Peanut" takes off in an entirely different direction. Suddenly it's July 1954, and we're following Dr. Sam Sheppard, the man jailed and later released for killing his wife, whose real-life story inspired the fictional TV series and movie "The Fugitive."

Effortlessly shifting perspective, from Sheppard, to his wife Marilyn, to their cleaning man Richard Eberling, and again jumping back and forth in time, this story -- like Alice and David's -- is a meditation on dark mysteries of relationships and how it's impossible to know what goes on behind the closed doors of a married couple.

Does it all come together? Yes and no. The feat of "Mr. Peanut" is that, by the end, you understand how David relates to the present-day Detective Sheppard, and how that Sheppard relates to the 1950s Sheppard, and how all of these men relate to Hastroll, and why all of their stories are being told as an interlocking narrative.

"A good reader -- a good detective -- knows this by now," Ross writes, just after making his big reveal; and, indeed, as you look back over the pages, you see clues layered like tiny rhinestones sewn into a couture dress.

The disappointment, though, is that "Mr. Peanut" doesn't quite have the emotional impact Ross aims for. In the final pages, the story turns out to be more of a tragedy than a mystery, though by this point, the postmodern gamesmanship has distanced us from the characters. Ross' central idea is very touching -- without giving anything away, let's just say the book posits that writing fiction is a way of grieving -- but it's hard to feel deeply for people who ultimately come off as the pawns of a clever author.

That said, this book puts to shame most of what passes for summertime beach reading, by reminding us that genre fiction need not always been an insult to your intelligence. And when Ross is humming, "Mr. Peanut" proves plainly thrilling. This is the work of a boundlessly eager writer willing to try just about anything, and invite us to share in his sinister joy.

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