Let's just say that you live near Indianapolis, "the capitol of Big Pharma/the Hartford of the Midwest," and like it, and the people you work and hang with are a big reason why. If so, Ian Woollen's novel Hoosier Life and Casualty is a great read. If you aren't from around here, this is still a disarmingly charming dive through the duck weed of midwesternism. A corporate power struggle thriller, a family saga with love story and a double coming-of-age tale -- all in a tidy volume.
Woollen's lifelong study of the dark side of human behavior has taught him a good deal about the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, the deceitful machinations of ruling-class families and the silly stupidity of young punks. His research into the warmth of the human heart has taught him about the depth of friendship, the glory of love, the hazards of yoga and the satisfaction of singing in church choir.
Marian Purlbaugh goes thrifting with her sainted choir director friend Shawntelle Boyd, hoping to restock their shop, JunkTiques. Elvis Scurvine, alley rat, with his devil of a pal Devon Eustiss, are off to haunt the Indiana State Fair when they see the living image of The Beast, Elvis's long-lost black pickup truck wherein all of their meaningful life experiences were gained. "Of the many varieties of childhood friendships maintained into adult years, theirs is the kind that risks extreme regressions." Of course this is Marian's truck, of course the boys take it off on a joy ride, of course no one's life is ever the same.
"Calvinist Puritanism went underground in the mid-19th century, only to reemerge in the form of the American insurance industry -- salvation linked to work, everyone desperately paying in for coverage, yet a complete mystery on the few elect to receive it and why." This from a term paper by Marian. Concerning Elvis: "Elvis is barefoot. He is often barefoot.... Ma Scurvine dressed her son out of suitcases she stole from the luggage carousels at the airport. It worked fine with clothing ... but her stolen suitcase method didn't succeed with shoes."
"As per Vonnegut, there is quite a bit of the phantasmagoric in with all of the human comedy."
Woolen writes these characters with great care. Marian and Elvis are developed together and apart, leading converging lives, coming from very different places and then at last emerging together from a chrysalis of plot threads. This gives the story a balanced tension of gender, social class and emotional inadequacy that gives the reader no rest. Wealthy and working class, school smart and street smart, male and female, neurotic and bonehead, aphasic and dyslexic, ambitious and ambivalent. They approach, collide, rebound, find themselves somewhat altered by each impact, and approach again.
As per Vonnegut, there is quite a bit of the phantasmagoric in with all of the human comedy. The government's failed attempt at climate change leaves the city under a coat of cornstarch; the pharmaceutical company's research lab unleashes psychlonic dust devils with whom any interaction is fatal. And throughout there is the demonic behavior of the insurance giant itself. As per Doris Lessing's Sally-Sarah in The Four-Gated City, the prominent family renames a lower- status spouse "Geoffrey's wife" without so much as a second thought. In fact, Hoosier Life and Casualty contains a serious look at the striations of class and status in America and makes a strong case for corporate psychopathology as a serious field in need of study. How in the world are we to live and prosper with these monstrous entities, both family and corporate, when we understand so little about them?
Hoosier Life and Casualty, like Vonnegut's best works, could well be offered as a tour guide to inner America, suitable both for foreigners and Americans from the two coasts. There is life here, of a sort, and no, we are not longing to relocate to trendier shores. Herein is a whole bunch of the reason why.
Steve Pollitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.