Unearthly powers

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

This delightfully good-humoured novel is the sort of genre scramble that doesn’t often work: there’s a bit of 1990s family saga, a bit of mobster crime thriller, a bit of Cold War goat-staring spy story and really quite a lot of psychic/psycho-kinetic fantasy. And yet Daryl Gregory, who won several impressive prizes a few years ago for his fabulous horror novella We Are All Completely Fine, pulls the whole thing off with the unflustered charm of a stage magician.

The setting is Chicago in the summer of 1995, where the Telemachus family, formerly a bunch of stage psychics and entertainers (‘Teddy Telemachus and His Amazing Family!’) have fallen on hard times. Irene, a disgraced thirtysomething accountant, has moved back to her widowed dad’s house with her teenage son Matty. Her brother Frankie is a deadbeat dad who hopes to pay off his debt to the Mafia by running a pyramid scheme. Their brother Buddy, vacant-eyed and not quite right in the head, drifts about the house on a mysterious mission of his own. And Grandpa Teddy, a dapper widower, spends his time cruising malls to practise falling in love: ‘Two decades after Maureen had died, the only way to keep his hollowed heart thumping was to give it a jump start on a regular basis.’

The only catch? The Telemachuses really are amazing. Grandpa Teddy was once a brilliant cardsharp and conman. Grandma Mo was the world’s most powerful psychic, a remote viewer who acted as the secret weapon of a United States ‘constantly on guard against psychic incursion’ from the Soviet Union.

Their children and grandchildren have a bit of both sides: pubescent Matty, barely 14, can project his soul to the astral plane, but only when he’s stoned or horny. Irene can tell infallibly when people are lying, a terrifying mum superpower that substantially complicates her dating life. Frankie is a schlub on the make, but occasionally he can move tiny things with his mind — pinballs, for example, and roulette wheels — while his daughters can start fires with their brains. Slow-looking Buddy is an extraordinary psychic with a compendious grasp of past and future; if he seems absent, it’s because he’s experiencing life 20 years ago or six months hence.

Combine all this with elderly Teddy’s pursuit of a mobster’s wife, some unfinished Mob business with the Telemachus family, a set of visits by an ageing G-man who used to handle Grandma Mo and Buddy’s private visions of apocalypse, and we have a delightfully hectic comedy that slides, in a careful simulation of chaos, towards an impeccably twisty slapstick conclusion.

Gregory’s prose is compassionate and witty (I liked the FBI agent who has ‘a blocky head on a big rectangular body, like a microwave atop a refrigerator’ and moves ‘in straight lines, like a righteous ox’); and his evocation of a sitcommish mid-1990s suburbia (Beanie Babies, AOL CDs) is spot on. The TV rights to Spoonbenders have already been sold, and I doubt this is the last we’ll hear of the Telemachus family. Hope not, anyway: the book’s a delight.

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