The Wisdom of Perversity
Rafael Yglesias
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The Wisdom of Perversity
Rafael Yglesias
Algonquin Books
384 pages
March 2015
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Monsters beget monsters. This is the ugly truth behind a novel that is painful to experience, if excoriating in its revelations. With the slowly evolving weight of a Greek tragedy, the consequences of actions in 1966 are agonizingly regurgitated in 2008 in a tale that would be at home on a Broadway stage. But this drama is not cloistered behind the sanctimonious denials of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It unfolds instead in New York City, where two eight-year-old boys--Brian Moran and Jeffrey Mark--are introduced to the perversions that fester in the adult world, where families trade secrets and small betrayals that have lasting and profound effects on innocent children. At best, family dynamics are difficult; at worst, poisoned by greed and ambition.

Brian lives downstairs from Jeff, usually summoned to Jeff’s apartment, where his perpetually bedridden mother, Harriet, enjoys an iron-fisted control over her hardworking husband and son. Jeff’s father most often attends his small, struggling stationary store, while Harriet directs the household from her bed with all the accoutrements of the chronic hypochondriac. Both boys are respectful, Jeff given to whining complaint followed by concession; Brian’s will turns to jelly when Harriet issues commands at him. When Brian is first introduced to Jeff’s older cousin, NBC vice-president of marketing Richard Klein, both are treated to a visit to the set of Johnny Carson’s TV show. A clumsy Brian is helpless in the face of Klein’s cleverly disguised sexual aggression, confused by actions for which he has no frame of reference. Meeting Klein’s “little brother” Sam Rydel on the same outing, Brian is drawn into a drama his eight-year-old brain is ill-equipped to comprehend.

Further visits to Jeff’s apartment beget more intrusions by an emboldened “Uncle Richard.” Brian soon learns that his predictably bold friend Jeff is rendered helpless in the face of Richard’s attentions, unable to save himself from the situation. The boys are made further complicit in a private horror show with the inclusion of Jeff’s eleven-year-old cousin, Julie. Inevitably, all three are trapped in Klein’s nightmarish web, with Sam a willing coconspirator. Their desperation fuels a growing fear that rescue from the adults around them is futile as an oblivious Harriet directs family’s events from her de facto bedroom throne.

In 2008, Brian and Jeff have been estranged for years. Jeff Mark is a hot Hollywood movie director, Brian a successful screenwriter, and chronically unhappy Julie is married with a fifteen-year-old son. Recent headlines are full of news that now-wealthy Sam Rydel, founder of the Huck Finn charitable organization for underprivileged kids, is about to be indicted for abusing his wards. Unfortunately, the case against Rydel (Klein is not even mentioned in the indictment) falls apart as unreliable witnesses and a lapsed statute of limitations inhibit prosecutor’s attempts at justice. Ever the truth-teller, Julie, decides to contact Brian and Jeff, prepared at last to demand they join her in exposing their shared childhood trauma, naming Klein as well Rydel, who was only tangentially involved with Jeff and Brian.

Yglesias navigates this treacherous terrain in chapters that segue between then and now, from innocence to confusion, to the immediate threat to wealth and careers if the truth is told. Each victim grapples with the particular realization of personal consequences. Julie’s long struggle has yet to bear fruit, her childhood pain a lifetime burden: “Telling the truth or living a lie, she was fated never to become herself.” Jeff, perhaps the most fortunate with his over-the-top popularity and a string of lucrative films, “had learned the wisdom of perversity and made his lonely secret into art.” The journey has perhaps been the most agonizing for Brian, embittered by the early traumas that have robbed him of the ability to achieve normalcy in relationships: “I can’t be what I should be, what I was supposed to be.” The destruction of the children’s innocence is excruciating, described in elaborate detail that captures a nightmare that never seems to end, the extent of the damage profound and indelible. Each victim is personally scarred, each self-image altered by abuse abetted by the willful blindness of adults tempted by wealth or distracted by a charismatic personality that demands the acquiescence of others. No longer voiceless children, Brian, Julie and Jeff grope clumsily toward mutual understanding in order to reclaim their lives, shedding pretensions to speak as one, “to face the future of their past.” This novel and the damning expedience of its resolution is absolute torture to read, scathing and unrepentant but impossible to ignore.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2015

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