Show Up, Look Good by Mark Wisniewski. Gival Press. $20.00, 224 pages.
Early in Show Up, Look Good, Mark Wisniewski’s second novel, newly single Michelle meets up with an old friend, Barb, from the Midwest. Michelle has already been portrayed as a woman who attracts all variations of awkwardness and bad luck: she’s awakened to find her ex, Thom, “having his way, well, with a marital aid,” agreed to bathe an old woman as part of her rental contract, and experienced a blown transmission on her way to sell her Plymouth Reliant. Barb’s statement feels both prescient and prophetic: “Everyone in Kankakee . . . knows you won’t last in this city. In fact, quite a few of us are making bets about when you’ll be back.”
That city is Manhattan, and Michelle is determined, against all the absurd odds, to survive there. She is nothing if not resourceful—her money making schemes range from scalping David Letterman tickets to house-sitting an apartment used for afternoon trysts for random adulterers—but a larger force appears to be continually pushing Michelle backward. Memories of her inadequacy to satisfy Thom are compounded by further failures in love, her continual feelings of a being an outsider in the city, and the haunting fact that her mother died in childbirth. Her happiness is thwarted at nearly every step, and though the novel is wry and rambunctious, we feel more than a bit sorry for her ridiculous existence. In one great scene, Michelle is caught hawking the Letterman tickets, and she almost seems surprised that someone has taken offense. It’s not that Michelle is stupid, and she’s experienced enough in Manhattan to no longer be naïve; rather, she holds on to the hope that someone out there might help her, and that such help could be simply looking the other way when she acts foolishly. Rather than leaving the area of the Ed Sullivan theater and never coming back, Michelle stands in line for a show and is recruited for the “Stupid Human Tricks” act. Her trick: “lodge a beer bottle in my cleavage and chug it through a straw.” We’re embarrassed for Michelle as she performs her feat in a basement, “beneath a low ceiling of exposed pipes and wires”; she impresses the interns but is not selected to perform, and to make matters worse, she’s recognized by the security guard who ended her scalping business, given a canned ham, and told “to avoid the theater from now on.”
With enemies like these, Michelle could use a friend, and Wisniewski, a writer who exists in the loose genealogy of early Thomas McGuane, offers a few possibilities. They include a few nightmare roommates, an overly nice couple from Astoria that turn out to be swingers, and Ernest Coolridge, a mute former New York Yankee who has hanged with the likes of Al Pacino “we smoked cigars . . . just before Dog Day Afternoon.” Ernest communicates by jotting capitalized words on his notepad, and the typographical result is curious: moments of respite between Michelle’s fast-paced first-person narrative. The interruptions would be unnecessary in a calmer story, but Wisniewski uses Ernest to reposition the reader’s attention. Michelle’s breakneck narration feels appropriate to her metropolitan disorientation, and Ernest’s notes offer the closest to authentic grounding she receives in the novel.
Show Up, Look Good is not action-packed in the thriller sense, but it’s certainly attuned to the emotional speed of worry and anxiety, and the McGuane comparison feels particularly apt. McGuane, whose newer fiction tends to evoke his relocated home in Montana and the sentiments of the New West, plied his trade through language-driven, nearly sarcastic early novels in the sixties and seventies. From The Sporting Club, a farce set in a Michigan country club in the deep woods, to Ninety-Two in the Shade, the rivalry between guide-boat drivers in Key Largo, McGuane captured a particular linguistic cynicism, softening his absurdities of plot with pitch-perfect prose. Though Wisniewski’s fiction is firmly grounded in the present, the hints of McGuane are clear: a misguided main character who attracts the worst of life but plods forward. In the frantic last act, Ernest becomes more complex his aged do-gooder exterior might imply: his rental agreement with Michelle to house-sit the apartment reserved for midday affairs goes wrong when Michelle “glimpsed a woman’s legs sliding over the checkerboard tiles around the corner toward the elevator.” The implication becomes clear: “what I’m trying to say is that someone might have died in my apartment.” At first the action feels haphazard, but the reader has been rehearsed for this. The first sentence of the novel contains the admission that “I know of a secret murder.” Michelle is too cynical for melodrama, and the secret fades until these final pages, where the reader begins to better understand the narrator: she’s more than a woman who has fallen backward into bad luck. Michelle’s paved her own way through a succession of bad decisions. Her acceptance of Ernest rental’s contract is only part of the problem: she knows the murder victim, someone who, like her, “had been a slave to Manhattan.” The next lines sound like a confession: “she’d been to clubs and met men who’d seemed kind, and she’d bought salads by the pound at rat-infested delis just after five PM to save a dollar a pound, and she’d tried to like sushi and suffered through food poisoning and the sharp smell of a grease fire in the apartment across the hall.” The woman, much like Michelle, “cherished warmth of any kind.”
Such sentiment permeates Show Up, Look Good. Michelle’s relationships, both romantic and platonic, have been failures. She lacks “companionship,” and though others around her have quite dysfunctional relationships, at least they’re in relationships, hovering somewhere close to happiness. It may come as no surprise, then, that the one person who might guide her in the right direction is that ex-Yankee who, “for half a season . . . led the team in triples.” That anecdote might sound like an arbitrary statistic, but even Michelle recognizes that at least Ernest was in the books for something. And such half-hearted acceptance feels appropriate to the early McGuane tradition that Wisniewski resides within: for all the posturing and suspense of Ninety-two in the Shade, McGuane opted for a quick kill at the conclusion, since “this was not theater.” Wisniewski realizes the occasional flatness of life’s epiphanies, and his novel hits those real notes without petering into flat prose. Whereas McGuane reveled in the smirk of passing off his narrative to a side character while the two main players lie “in a pile at his feet,” Wisniewski remains with Michelle, despite her weaknesses. That authorial decision to stay the course helps the reader recognize the complexity of Michelle’s experience, and transforms her from type to individual, one worthy of attention and patience.
Nick Ripatrazone is a staff writer at Luna Park and an MFA student at Rutgers University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Esquire, the Kenyon Review, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere.
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