Review: Pretend I'm Dead

Whiting Award-winner Jen Beagin's first novel, Pretend I'm Dead, features the raunchy, antsy, droll and painstakingly proficient housekeeper Mona. After a blue-collar childhood in Torrance, Calif., with an alcoholic father and equally dysfunctional mother, she is placed with distant kin in Lowell ("Hole"), Mass., and pretty much left to fend for herself. By day she cleans the houses of her adopted hometown with "all this brick and repression... snow, wool, guilt." By night she works at a pop-up needle exchange where she meets a disabled addict wearing a tee with Jack Kerouac on the front. Two decades older and living in an SRO hotel, this man she calls "Mr. Disgusting" has a room with real paintings, Indian textiles and shelves of existential and Russian novels--unlike her last boyfriend: "some edgeless dude... whose heaviest cross to bear had been acne." Mona may not know where she's going, but she knows what she likes.

If Mona's uneasy relationship with Mr. Disgusting opens doors to possibility, her housecleaning work grounds her. She's got a vacuum jones ("on applications she listed it as one of her hobbies") to go with the practice of raiding her clients' medicine cabinets. When Mr. Disgusting disappears, he leaves her a letter urging her to escape to New Mexico to start a new life. Why not?

Packing her pickup with books and cleaning supplies, she takes off in "what the 12-steppers called a geographic," rents half an adobe casita duplex in Taos, and launches a housekeeping business. Sharing her casita, the ashram mystics Irishman Nigel and Japanese Shiori remind her of John and Yoko, "but the truth was, they were more like Yoko and Yoko." They take Mona under wing and introduce her to meditation, a healthy diet and marathon contemplation of New Mexico sunsets. Softening somewhat under their transcendental tutelage, Mona reaches out to reconnect with her father and even holds questioning discourse with the God she calls "Bob."

As Mona's business adds new referral clients, she finds herself scrubbing the floors and bathrooms of cancer victim Henry and spiffing the double-wide in the desert of red-haired psychic Betty. Beagin generously seasons her narrative with the nuts and bolts of housekeeping work, including Mona's reliable Hoover Aero-Dyne Model 51 vacuum and clever uses of Murphy Oil Soap on leather sofas and olive oil on stainless steel appliances. But Pretend I'm Dead is all Mona's story. The central characters of its four sections provide a different slant on her often painful path to maturity. She listens and she learns. Beagin's debut is grungy and ribald, melancholic and funny. Throw in a little wisdom, schmaltz and a few useful housekeeping tips, and Pretend I'm Dead delivers a real bang for the buck. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Shelf Talker: Whiting Award-winner Jen Beagin's first novel introduces the raffish and despondent Mona, a beguiling and lovable cleaning lady.

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