Book Review: Those Around Him
Reviewed by Alexandra Barbush
An earnest family drama that entangles three generations of men
After living most of his adult life as an expatriate in Italy, Andrew has returned to Florida to help his sister care for his aging parents.
Andrew is the opposite but complementary to his sister Sheila. They understand each other, maybe a little too well, and work in back and forth shifts to sort out the many logistical moves of aging parents who separate, move back together, and eventually die.
After their mother goes, the spotlight shifts to Charles, their father, and their efforts to move him out of his too-big home and into Sheila’s, then Andrew’s home. While trying to accept his middle age, his sagging looks and his own slow trudge toward senior citizenship, Andrew meets an ageless and enigmatic stranger on one of his afternoon beach walks.
Alex, known as “Ex” to his friends and now Andrew, immediately captures his attention. Sleek, tall, dirty, and barefoot, Ex is on the beach when Andrew finds him, and the two strike up a conversation.
Andrew revels in the young energy and flawless skin of his new 23-year-old friend. The juxtaposition is immediately obvious for Andrew: seeing this carefree 23-year-old next to himself, a 65-year-old man, unsure of where he is in life. Andrew invites Ex back to his house for dinner, and a curious and confusing relationship continues between the two. Sexual energy is on the table, but Andrew fears he’ll be the first male experience for the young man.
Over the course of a few days, the same scenario plays out. Ex comes over for dinner, reveals essentially nothing about himself, strips nude to swim in Andrew’s pool, and sleeps curled up next to him. After a few days of silence, Andrew discovers Ex has been jailed for heroin possession.
Ex calls him for help, after which Andrew bails him out and houses him in a hotel while he detoxes, before inviting him to live with him.
At the same time, Andrew’s father switches from Sheila to Andrew’s house, making his once peaceful den of solitude into a home for three generations of incredibly different men. After just a few days, his father warns Andrew about Ex, telling him, while he usually stays out of his business, this boy is trouble. The narrative plays out in a confusing up-and-down of relational closeness and eventually ends exactly how they all feared.
Those Around Him is a torrent of changing winds. Andrew’s life is in constant flux based on those people he allows into his home and heart: his sister’s selfish whims, the need to care for his aging and sick ornery father, and the random desires of a 23-year-old heroin addict. Ex is both alluring and unstable, a combination of helpful traits that help drive the story forward.
The complicated threads of their intermingling lives are earnest and realistic. But some characters come out a bit flat, and while Andrew’s father describes his children with huge amounts of consciousness of their own personalities and of how he treats them, these intricate family ties don’t always translate to the dialogue and relationships we see on the page. Some characters are told too simply, while others appear grandiose, and we leave our characters in a storm of uncertainty.
I’d recommend Those Around Him to anyone interested in literary fiction about the difficult sacrifices we make to support our family. The characters aren’t exactly sympathetic here—that’s not what we’re going for—but it’s the convoluted characters and lives that add to the trueness of the story being told. Family, drugs, and confusion—a mirror up to the reality of our lives.
Genre: Literary Fiction
Print Length: 302 pages
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