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The First Bad Man


The First Bad Man

Cheryl Glickman is the narrator of THE FIRST BAD MAN, Miranda July’s debut novel about the absurdly impossible task of placing oneself, accurately, in the world. Everything is examined only through her lens. Cheryl is middle-aged, drives a blue Honda, and suffers from Globus Hystericus (an imagined lump in the throat) badly enough to seek help from a chromotherapist. The doctor prescribes red, Cheryl takes the vial of liquid (which seems contradictorily and impossibly clear), and she makes a phone call to thank Phillip Bettelheim for the recommendation. Phil is her unrequited lover, a Board member of the Kick It firm where she works. The series of continuing texts and messages that she and Phil exchange are one of the underpinnings of Cheryl’s strange, erotic, unorthodox life.

When Cheryl was nine years old, her parents and their friends, the Bondys, sat in the living room and drank wine. She was instructed to entertain Kubelko, their one-year-old son. Kubelko Bondy. That could not have been his real name --- it was a case of mistaken hearing --- but that was what she called him. The baby cries, and as she cradles him, she sees in his eyes that he loves her more than his parents. She is unsure if he belongs to her as a child or as a spouse, but she rises “to the challenge of heartache” and returns his love. Her quiet voice is unable to stop the parents from taking him home, but she has searched for him for years. Sometimes a newborn, sometimes a toddler --- she has seen him occasionally but never with a purposeful end. The search for Kubelko Bondy is another underpinning in Cheryl’s tempestuous, orderly, not-quite-on-the-mark life.

"Read THE FIRST BAD MAN, not because you will find yourself there, but because you may come to another understanding of how to laugh at and love yourself."

One of the lynchpins of Cheryl’s undeniably efficient system for housekeeping goes like this: Say a person gets depressed and stops doing the dishes. Soon there’s a mountain of dirty dishes. Soon the person starts eating with “dirty forks out of dirty dishes and this makes the person feel like a homeless person.” Bathing stops. The person does not leave the house and starts peeing in cups because they’re closer to the bed. The person throws trash all around. Cheryl assures us we’ve all been this person, and the solution is simple: Fewer dishes. Stop moving things around. Dinnertime: skip the plate and just eat from the skillet.All other facets of Cheryl’s day-to-day living have been organized with equally precise and wacky clarity.

There is a sense of awe at how often and how far Cheryl goes off-track in her assessments of reality in both her professional and personal lives. She sees and hears, and we begin to believe her on-site reports, but then she veers dramatically into a ditch. Off the road. And crushes that idea that “we’ve all been this person.” One instance is her treatment of Rick, a homeless veteran who comes to her house to garden once a week. She never pays him and does not want him to be there, but she neither tells him to stop coming nor does she do the gardening work herself. Rick has a generous heart, but it will be a long time before Cheryl understands that she has not understood him at all.

Clee is the axe that breaks apart the frozen life Cheryl has constructed. A twenty-something blonde, a little heavy, maybe more voluptuous (the word bombshell might come to mind), Clee is the headstrong daughter of Cheryl’s employers. She is rude, sloppy, demanding and critical. The given reason for Clee’s needing a place to stay for a few days is that she is an actress looking for work; the real reason, understood to all but Cheryl, is that she has outstretched her parents. Because so much of Cheryl’s life has been cloistered and because her voice is not loud or clear enough to protest, Clee’s violent intrusion begins and continues. Strange events are followed by even stranger events.

Miranda July understands both vulnerability and compassion. Cheryl unfolds and refolds into herself as her weird and unfathomable world slowly becomes normal and manageable. Read THE FIRST BAD MAN, not because you will find yourself there, but because you may come to another understanding of how to laugh at and love yourself.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on January 16, 2015

The First Bad Man
by Miranda July

  • Publication Date: September 8, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1439172579
  • ISBN-13: 9781439172575