The Portable Veblen

When Veblen Amundsen-Hovda and Paul Vreelend fall in love, the path to the aisle is rocky.

Paul, an ambitious Stanford doctor, is perfecting a device that will minimize battlefield brain trauma. Named for Thorsten Veblen, the "conspicuous consumption" economist and author of The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen is an "experienced cheerer-upper, and freelance self," a temp and amateur translator of Norwegian--and she's thrilled with Paul's altruistic goals. Will Paul's "peacenik" hippie parents, or Veblen's narcissistic hypochondriac mother, or the heiress of Hutmacher Pharmaceuticals, with her eye on Paul's invention (and Paul), sour the romance? We could ask the squirrel.

The Portable Veblen, Elizabeth McKenzie's audacious and hilarious novel, introduces the western gray at the very moment Veblen responds to Paul's proposal. "'Yes?' the man said. The squirrel emitted a screech." Veblen, who has a talent for communing with nature, heeds its cues. McKenzie's squirrel is as credible as anyone in her delightful cast of quirky characters.

As Paul and Veblen navigate the obligatory meeting of the families and planning their wedding, Paul starts trials at a VA hospital for his invention. McKenzie satirically juxtaposes the grim reality of wounded veterans with the military bureaucracy, and big pharma wheedling its share. When Hutmacher rushes the product into production, Paul blows the whistle--with disastrous results.

McKenzie's similes and metaphors leap from the pages when lovable Veblen delivers lines like "tattoos like thunderheads," "can-can skirts of fuschias." There's good in almost everyone, sweet justice for the not-so-good and an unpredictable yet satisfying conclusion. Or, as the squirrel says: "Seeforyourselfforyourselfforyourself." --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco

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