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In 'Very Nice,' Even The Dog Is Unfaithful

Very Nice, Marcy Dermansky's fourth novel, serves up a tart lemonade of a summer read that won't demand too much of your time or attention: Short, simple sentences. Strong, outspoken characters. Lots of libidinous activity, much of it unwise, some of it around a swimming pool. A beautiful standard poodle. A posh Connecticut coastal commuter town that brings a decidedly modern update to John Cheever's suburbia.

Like her previous novel, The Red Car (2016), an ode to coming unstuck and a paean to Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, Dermansky's latest involves an aspiring young writer who makes some questionable choices. So do the book's other characters as they test the notion of whether it's okay to want whatever you want and take it if you can.

The inspirational model for Very Nice is less literary than Murakami but no less popular: soap opera. Flat, matter-of-fact prose again captures the way the ordinary can morph into liberating strangeness, but the result this time around is a friskier read. Very Nice zips and twists along episodically, with a tightly spun narrative that alternates between the points of view of a handful of linked characters.

This world turns around 19-year-old Rachel Klein, who seduces her creative writing professor just as he's finishing a two-year residence at her liberal arts college up the Hudson River. Zahid Azzam, acclaimed for a first novel with impenetrably long sentences and paragraphs, isn't a particularly good teacher. But he often brings his apricot standard poodle, Princess, to class, and they make a striking pair. He has hit on hard times, which Rachel knows about because of his oversharing on social media. "He was incredibly beautiful, my professor, like his dog," Rachel writes. After her first kiss, which he returns after just a moment's hesitation, he says, "That was very nice." Rachel recalls that he had deleted all the verys and reallys from one of her short stories.

Rachel agrees to care for her professor's dog in Connecticut while he goes home to visit his dying grandmother in Pakistan. She is the only child of a liberal investment banker and an elementary school teacher who once made headlines for talking down a gun-toting former student, a member of a wildly rich, "seriously disturbed" local family of Trump-supporting gun enthusiasts. Rachel's father, Jonathan, has recently left her mother, Becca, for a much younger woman, a blond airline pilot, though Becca claims she's more upset about the simultaneous death of her beloved big white poodle than the defection of her husband.

In tried and true soap opera fashion, there are more connections between this novel's characters than in a Mormon reunion. The woman subletting Zahid's Brooklyn apartment, Khloe, is a new star associate at Jonathan's financial firm. She's a light-skinned black lesbian, and she's lovesick over her former childhood babysitter — who has recently been named Zahid's new editor, tasked with getting him to finish his long overdue second novel. Khloe is the twin sister of Kristi, Zahid's best writer friend, who tries to land him a teaching job in Iowa. And so on.

When Zahid returns from Pakistan early, "looking more than ever like a sad prince," he finds himself homeless and broke. The generous advance for his second novel is long gone, frittered away on fancy indulgences. He heads out to Connecticut, supposedly to pick up his dog, but he's smitten with the Kleins' gracious home and pool — and with Rachel's fit and capable mother, Becca. He settles in. "This was the kind of woman I needed in my life. A beautiful woman with a big, beautiful house. A woman who would walk my dog, who would not want children, who would not expect me to produce another masterpiece. A woman who had been let down by another man. She would not have unrealistic expectations," he says shamelessly.

However twisted, it's amusing to watch these people repeatedly step in it and act in bad faith.

Zahid starts writing again. Becca thrums with the excitement of feeling newly appreciated. Meanwhile, Rachel keeps rationalizing her professor's avoidance of her. To say it's an awkward situation is an understatement. Zahid lives in dread of "poor, wounded" Rachel "ruining it for me." Her response is — well, the stuff of daytime television drama.

All of the characters speak in short, unadorned sentences, making their voices hard to distinguish at times. But differences emerge. Rachel's affect is almost scarily, psychopathically flat, as her mother notes. Khloe is tough, her speech laced with profanity; she's out to make a ton of money and is unabashed about putting her own interests above all. Yet she believes that "deep down, unlike every other single f-ing person I knew, I was decent." Becca is wryly deadpan. Long-lashed, self-pitying Zahid whines about all the women who throw themselves at him, and lets himself off the hook for his unctuous behavior with the finesse of a Houdini-fish. ("I was in need of kindess" is his frequent excuse.)

However twisted, it's amusing to watch these people repeatedly step in it and act in bad faith. The novel culminates with a cheap but funny twist on a common metaphor, which underscores its satiric intent. But beneath the fun, Very Nice is a scathing portrait of a culture in which self-interest overrides duty and loyalty. Even the dog is unfaithful.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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