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TBTS Reviews: It Feels So Good When I Stop

July 28, 2009

This review reveals no major spoilers.

Have you ever had a stretch of time where you’re getting nothing right? Where a good day is not making anybody scream in anger or cry in disappointment? Where your own bad luck and worse choices have finally caught up to you but good, and the only thing you trust about the future is that the consequences of your poor judgment will be even hairier and uglier the next time you get lapped on the endless go-kart loop your life has become?

The unnamed narrator has been losing the race for at least three years when we meet him at the beginning of Joe Pernice’s debut novel It Feels So Good When I Stop, set in Massachusetts and New York circa 1996. Three years might be a kind assessment—those less inclined to charity, including Jocelyn, his ex-girlfriend and current wife (great story there), would say he’s been breathing failure’s exhaust his whole life.

When we meet Pernice’s narrator, he and Jocelyn have been married for three days. He’s been hiding on Cape Cod with his brother-in-law, James, for two and a half of those. On the first morning of their wedded bliss, he left Jocelyn in New York with a Post-It note that said only, “I’m sorry,” the latest of many acts of emotional violence they’ve committed against each other. It’s clear he has no idea what to do about his sudden departure from their marriage, itself a misguided, last-ditch effort to save their broken relationship. Around and around he goes, leaving more wreckage with each lap.

On the Cape he meets Marie, a woman who, for once, represents an obstacle he can neither drive around nor plow over. She lives in an inherited house in James’s neighborhood. She spends a significant portion of her time falling into or crawling out of a blackout drunk. She wanders the nearby streets, trying to run away from ghosts—or perhaps toward them. A series of unlikely (though, to Pernice’s credit, never far-fetched) events leads Marie and the narrator to work together on a film project with deep personal significance for her. Through their work, the narrator learns that Marie has known pain and loss of a type he’s only pretended to read about in college English classes.

Briefly, during the second half of It Feels So Good…, it seems that the narrator might finally put his life on a different course. He begins to form connections, however tenuous, with Marie, James, and James’s son, a toddler named Roy. The narrator finally has legitimate chances to build something new, something not shaped by a dead-end restaurant job and mutually assured destruction with Jocelyn.

The action of It Feels So Good… is propelled along in a series of vignettes. The narrator’s current interactions with Marie, James, Roy, and other Cape Codders are interspersed with his memories of both good and bad times in years past, as when a discussion of Peter Frampton on the Cape leads him to relate a very public, scorched-earth argument with Jocelyn about wanting to attend a Frampton concert on her birthday. It’s an effective technique that helps build the tension between the past and present narratives and leads the reader to eagerly await the moment they converge.

With or without the nice storytelling techniques, in hands less skilled than Pernice’s, It Feels So Good… might come off as just so much Gen-X angst, published ten years too late to mean all that much. But Joe Pernice is no ordinary debut novelist. In 15 years worth of songs he’s written and sung for the Pernice Brothers and other projects, Pernice has proven himself a keen, unflinching observer of terminal romance and its casualties. A single line in a Pernice song can reveal more about relationships than a dozen Harlequins or Hugh Grant movies.

Similarly, some of the smallest moments in It Feels So Good When I Stop are huge in their emotional impact and implications. Trying to ignore the sounds of anguished crying in the wake of a just-severed connection. Whispering inappropriate private jokes into your lover’s ear in public and barely containing your laughter. Listening to the engines at a go-kart track (I didn’t invent that metaphor for this review) and realizing you’d rather imagine a younger, less flawed version of yourself driving the kart than actually drive one in the present.

These moments and hundreds like them are finely wrought and forcefully conveyed in It Feels So Good When I Stop. Pernice also carves some profoundly funny moments out of the bleakness, and he’s a gifted writer of comedic dialogue, however bitter and biting it may be.

By the novel’s end, many of the narrator’s chances for redemption already seem doomed. A sliver of hope remains for others. Most likely, however, is that he’s about to begin another trip around the same old loop he’s been on for years, with a slightly more realistic hope that this next lap might actually be the last.

If you’ve ever felt similarly stuck, or been hurt by someone on such a journey to nowhere, Pernice’s fine, evocative novel should resonate with you. If not, you should still read it because it’s packed with dark humor and spot-on references to music and pop culture. Also, there’s a character named Dogshit.

It Feels So Good When I Stop hits the shelves on Thursday, August 6. On Tuesday, August 4, Ashmont Records released Pernice’s companion CD of cover songs, which TBTS has also reviewed. You may order the book here and the CD here.

7 Comments
  1. July 28, 2009 3:27 pm

    Wow – I bow down to your book reviewing skills. This review was absolutely fantastic! It perfectly illuminated what the book was in ways I never could have. (PS – thanks for stopping by my site!)

    I especially loved this line: “Through their work, the narrator learns that Marie has known pain and loss of a type he’s only pretended to read about in college English classes.”

    You’re right about the ending. It’s not one of those happy and shiny moments when everything changed and he’s better off. Instead, he probably will repeat the same mistakes…only this time with a little bit more hope.

  2. Jeff permalink
    July 28, 2009 7:16 pm

    Such a creative review. I like the way you play with words and share your insights. I think I want to read the book and I think I don’t want to read the book but getting to know Dogshit might make it worth it.

  3. August 9, 2009 10:59 am

    Great review! I finished the book yesterday, and feel the same way about it. The story is finely wrought and forcefully conveyed, as you say. The author, in addition to his songwriting past, has an MFA and has published a book of poetry as well as a novella in the “33 and 1/3” series, a reflection on The Smiths’ album Meat Is Murder. I’m just about to start that one, as I missed it when it came out a couple of years ago. These are more reasons why he’s not an ordinary debut novelist, as you pointed out.

    Also, I’m loving the Novel Soundtrack, available from the author/artist’s web site (http://www.ashmontrecords.com/store/) – a tremendous collection of covers (and one original) that are also forcefully conveyed, if I can borrow your phrase. “Chevy Van” on that album is killer. So is “Hello It’s Me”.

    Sorry I missed this review before I blogged about the soundtrack – thanks for stopping by and bringing it to my attention. Nicely done.

Trackbacks

  1. TBTS Reviews: It Feels So Good When I Stop (novel soundtrack) « The Brown Tweed Society
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