Reading Cannibals in Love, the debut novel from Mike Roberts (FSG Originals, 352 pages, $16), is like dumping a memory box on the table and feeling the gut-panging nostalgia ooze out from every concert ticket, old photo and letter.
In 18 vignettes, Roberts takes us through the life of a guy in his 20s, also named Mike, as he ping-pongs between Buffalo, New York City, Washington, D.C., Portland and Austin. He counts lamp posts for a summer, pens spam emails and, in Portland, baby-sits a rich, 13-year-old compulsive liar—all while working on his novel, an allegory about the U.S.'s invasion of Iraq set on a dairy farm. But through it all, one thing remains the same. His love for a woman named Lauren Pinkerton.
The book is structured as a series of snapshots. In one, Mike comes out of a blackout in Manhattan to find himself puking in the street while two cops watch. In another, he watches three "long-haired kids" snort coke off the white piano from "Imagine" at Sean Lennon's house. On the one hand, these are coming-of-age clichés. But Roberts doesn't seem to glamorize them, and that's part of the reason the book gets away with it.
Other sections, however, read like hot takes from Holden Caulfield via Chuck Klosterman. "In three days, I'd argued with my brother that 9/11 proved Buffalo was in the Midwest," Roberts writes. "I'd ruined a perfectly nice dinner by explaining some revolting fact I'd read about turkey farms. And I cited widespread pederasty in the Catholic Church as the reason I would not attend Midnight mass (or any church service) with the family."
These bits fade as the character becomes more self-critical and develops a more adult vulnerability I've seen portrayed so accurately by very few authors—especially in the sections about Lauren. "Part of the charm of our relationship was the fact that we engaged these parts of each other's personalities that no one wanted to touch…parts that are small and petty and drive normal people away," he writes.
The relationship is compelling enough that I wanted to find the reality behind the novel, which Roberts himself has said is semi-autobiographical. I even went so far as to tweet the author with my guess as to the real Lauren Pinkerton.
He wouldn't say.
But the mystery still swirled in my mind that night as I went to sleep. I knew the book was fiction, but Roberts' characters were so alive I refused to let them stay on the page.
SEE IT: Mike Roberts reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 503-228-4651, powells.com, on Monday, Sept. 26. 7:30 pm. Free.