I shall apologize in advance for doing two things I was taught never to do. First I judged a book by its cover, namely Mark Carp's novel "The Extraordinary Times of Ordinary People." Secondly, I used a cliché: "judge a book by its cover." Clichés are so horrible that one poetry reading host used to kick poets who used them off the stage. What was not horrible at all, and was in fact very entertaining, was the novel itself. The Extraordinary Times of Ordinary People is a sweet, bittersweet and highly amusing read.
When I received my review copy in the mail, I at first did not know what it was since the package was so light. Upon opening it I found a thin, stylish book with five old-fashioned-looking people on the cover. At 131 pages with easy-to-read type and short chapters, I figured the book would be a breeze to get through. It was. The only reason I didn't have it completely read in one sitting was because it was nearing midnight and I had to work the next day.
The title, The Extraordinary Times of Ordinary People, made me think that it would be a quaint, unique and interesting story. It was.
The only trepidation I had with my prejudgment was the old-fashioned people on the cover, making me imagine this might be some boring, depression-era, let's save-all-the-tuna-cans story. It wasn't.
When Carpman's heart is broken after his wife kicks him out of the house after learning of his affair we read something to the effect of: my heart was broken. Readers like to be shown. We want him groveling on the ground, banging his head into the wall, weeping on bended and arthritic knee.
Instead, we get Alvin Carpman, with a name surprisingly similar to the author's, who escaped with his wife from Nazi Germany during World War II to land in Baltimore.
He has a loving wife, two sons, a circle of close friends and a successful nurse uniform manufacturing business.
That's where it could have stayed ho-hum. Instead, tension sprouts all over the place. We get Carpman having an affair which may have produced a child, one son turning radical protestor and fleeing to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft and the other son who seems like he'll never amount to more than knowing the latest sports scores. None of this compares, however, to the massive conflict near the end of the story when someone near and dear to Carpman gets murdered and one son ends up on the murderer's side.
I am specifically trying to be vague here to entice you, too, to read the book. Heck, you don't even have to judge it by the cover as I've already done that for you.
All told, it was well worth the fast, sweet read. Yet there is something missing from the novel. Several things, actually.
The same writing classes that teach you not to use clichés also teach the writer to "show don't tell." This book is certainly all about telling. For example, when the one son moves to Canada, far from his family and unable to even visit, we know about the parents' feelings only because the book tells us something like: it was difficult. When Carpman's heart is broken after his wife kicks him out of the house after learning of his affair we read something to the effect of: my heart was broken. Readers like to be shown. We want him groveling on the ground, banging his head into the wall, weeping on bended and arthritic knee.
Other things, too, are not shown in the story. Like what the heck Carpman looks like. For all we know he could have six legs and one arm. We know he's white and we know he's Jewish. But that's about it. Is he tall? Squatty? Sickly? He couldn't have been all too ugly to pull off an extra-marital affair, unless the woman was just been turned on by his nurse uniform maker status.
It's also ingrained on the reader that Carpman is an eternal pessimist. Every so often we are reminded the main character is a man who looks at the bad, not the good; a guy who goes through life waiting for the other shoe to drop and knock him in the skull.
I kept flipping back to the cover photo of those old-fashioned people to try and figure out which one would be him, although the photo comes from the Jewish Museum of Maryland and it is not likely the folks were posing for the photo knowing they would be characters in a book some 40 years later.
We get very little physical descriptions of any of the characters. We know the affair woman is blond because affair women are supposed to be blond, the daughters-in-law are both brunette and one of Carpman's friends ends up getting roly-poly fat. That's about it.
From deduction, then, are we to assume Carpman himself is not blond, brunette or obese since those, and one man's description as black, are the only descriptions that briefly come our way?
We want to know what the dude looks like. We are equally curious about the wife and kids. Are they tall and ominous? Short and cutesy? Do they wear glasses, hats and/or flowered smocks?
The lack of description makes us conjure up all kinds of tragic thoughts, like they are missing teeth and eyeballs or are perhaps a monstrous colony of deformed Baltimore Jews who live beneath a troll bridge.
It's also ingrained on the reader that Carpman is an eternal pessimist. Every so often we are reminded the main character is a man who looks at the bad, not the good; a guy who goes through life waiting for the other shoe to drop and knock him in the skull. That's fine and dandy, or actually it's depressing, but I also found it not to be true. He seems to stay cool, calm and collected throughout the various ordeals life doles out to him. He never crumples to a ball, falls to the floor or even punches his fist through a glass door. He seems to take everything as it comes and keep moving forward.
That does not portray the pessimists I know. But then again, if he were like the pessimists I know, most readers would get disgusted within the first few pages and not even finish the story. Nor would they like him very much, if at all.
And if all the gory details were included in the "show don't tell" vein, the novel may not be as short and sweet.
So, although some aspects may be missing the novel itself does not come across lacking.
Although I'd still like to know what Carpman looks like.