Cheryl Glickman, early forties, lives alone and works for Open Palm, a company who make fitness DVDs; ‘self-defence as exercise’. When the book begins she has two fascinations: Phillip Bettelheim and babies who might be Kubelko Bondy.
That’s the problem with men my age, I’m somehow older than them. Phillip is in his sixties, so he probably thinks of me as a younger woman, a girl almost. Not that he thinks of me yet – I’m just someone who works at Open Palm. But that could change in an instant…
Kubelko Bondy was the son of friends of Cheryl’s parents in the early seventies. She played with him one evening as their parents drank wine. She was nine and he was barely one. When he cried and she consoled him,
…he looked at me and I looked at him and he looked at me and I knew that he loved me more than his mother and father and that in some real and permanent way he belonged to me.
As his parents take him and leave, she hears his voice in her head telling her to stop them. Since then she’s seen him again and again in the bodies of different children.
The core of the conflict in the novel though comes from Clee, the daughter of Cheryl’s bosses. She needs somewhere to live until she finds a job and an apartment in LA. Initially, one of Cheryl’s colleagues agrees to take her but changes her mind soon after. Cheryl gets a phone call late at night asking if Clee can move in with her instead.
When you live alone people are always thinking they can stay with you, when the opposite is true: who they should stay with is a person whose situation is already messed up by other people and so one more won’t matter.
Cheryl has a system at home. It’s pretty simple:
They can’t pile up if you don’t have them. This is the main thing, but also:
Stop moving things around.
Of course, Clee’s barely in the house two days before the system’s been trashed and it’s not long before Clee’s presence begins to anger Cheryl. Then things become much more intense:
I didn’t even see her get up. The crook of her arm caught my neck and jerked me backward. I slammed into the couch – the wind knocked out of me. Before I could get my balance she shoved my hip down with her knee. I grabbed at the air stupidly. She pinned my shoulders down, intently watching what the panic was doing to my face. Then she suddenly let go and walked away. I lay there shaking uncontrollably. She locked the bathroom door with a click.
Initially, Clee and Cheryl’s fights reminded me of children who are attracted to each other but either don’t know how to express this or are embarrassed about it. They take a more sinister turn part way into the book, however. Cheryl makes contact with Phillip early on in the novel and they telephone each other regularly. He talks to her about the young woman he’s seeing and his desire for her which leads Cheryl to begin seeing Clee through Phillip’s eyes:
Each time Clee sang jiddy jiddy jiddy rah rah she pumped her pelvis forward to the beat and her bosom bounced. Dear God, look at those jugs, Phillip panted. I whispered the word.
He wanted to rub her through her jeans. Jiddy jiddy jiddy rah rah. And cream in her mouth. Mutual soaping. Jiddy jiddy jiddy rah rah. My member was stiff…
I went to my room, locked the door, took off her purple bra with its shiny, shiny straps and pressed my balding head into her jugs. My big, hairy hand worked itself down the front of her jeans and my fingers, with their thick blocky fingernails, slid into her puss. She was wet and whimpering. “Phillip,” she moaned. “Put it in.” So I quietly, forcefully, made love to her mouth.
July spoke about these passages in a recent interview with Lena Dunham. She talked about the way we’re ‘sold’ heterosexual fantasies and that the object is the woman, she’s ‘the sexy one — the one you want to get. So if you’re just looking at it in that way, sex is fucking a woman. There isn’t any other sex.’
In the novel, they demonstrate Cheryl’s loneliness and her desire to connect with someone. July explores this in different ways, through Cheryl’s link with babies she believes are Kubelko Bondy; through her relationship with Phillip; through her therapists. It is her relationship with Clee however that forces her to move from passivity into a more active role and, by the end of the book, changes her life.
July’s handling of what could’ve been absurd situations is skillful; while many of the scenes in the first half of the book aren’t intended to be realistic, they are underpinned by insights into women’s experiences of single life and relationships. The final third of the novel is emotionally fulfilling. This was definitely unexpected and could have delved into sentimentality; instead it shifted the novel from an interesting one to a superb story of love and where we find it.
The First Bad Man is bold, bracing and brilliant.
Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.