My Ex-Life: Stephen McCauley reads from his latest novel in Woodstock

Photo of West Saugerties author Stephen McCauley by Sharona Jacobs.

It is fully possible to enjoy My Ex-Life, the seventh novel by West Saugerties resident Stephen McCauley, as nothing heavier than a sustained and virtuoso performance of pure zing: a rich harvest of contemporary irony, self-effacing wit, conspiratorial barbs, and the gentle debunking, if not the outright clinical deconstruction of illusions. Although it is well-differentiated from character to character, this playful-but-frank disenchantment is the novel’s common material, its oxygen. The characters here – especially the more humane ones – are wryly suspicious even of their own suffering.

A few pages into My Ex-Life, one of its three principals – the endearingly disheveled secret stoner and newly single mom Julie Fiske – looks down upon her town at dusk, the professionally quaint village of Beauport, Massachusetts (a barely anonymized Rockport, with McCauley’s “Hammond” as its boarded-up companion community Gloucester). With the touch of a prose watercolorist, McCauley writes:

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“From the steps where she was sitting, she could see the harbor and the shadowy lobster boats tugging at their moorings and the yellow lights starting to come on in the awful restaurants along the shore.” The scene, like everything else in this deceptively breezy novel, acknowledges its own clichés and the awful truths right beneath them – from the lesser awfuls of bad food and the banal aesthetics of tourism to the greater awfuls of economic and environmental collapse, high-strung political dualism and the ravages of unchecked wealth. Even when McCauley’s characters try, with or without the aid of a little weed, to wring a residual moment of nostalgia from their lives and what’s left of their myths, the wistful disillusionment is baked right into the landscape.

Sardonic, wry and ceaselessly funny as it may be, My Ex-Life genuinely surprises as it progresses, accumulating tenderness, warmth and complexity, and providing some latitude for modest growth and underplayed epiphanies to all its vivid characters – even the most jaded, narcissistic and rapacious. The story concerns the rekindling-under-duress of a friendship between Julie and her gay ex-husband from long ago, David Hedges. Several entangled and mirrored crises drive the plot: impending homelessness, pressing financial deadlines, the expedient reconnection of David and Julie and the intensifying identity issues of the precocious ironist Mandy, Julie’s teenage daughter and the third character from whose perspective the story is told.

Mandy is named for her father Henry’s love of the art of Barry Manilow. In a lesser novel of the same cast, Henry would be the literal straight man and straw man – a stiff philistine to David’s graceful wit and ready compassion – but McCauley is quite above that. Henry’s empathetic turnaround, after we have been baited to loathe him, is one of the novel’s quietly triumphant and contrarian moves.

In this novel, homes must double as AirBnBs, financial resources come from specious litigation, raided retirement accounts and the selling of literal family jewels. The kind lack all conviction and the rich are full of passionate (if jaded and self-aware) intensity. It is a funny and easygoing novel on the surface, but McCauley’s astute grasp of snowballing socioeconomic doom permeates every telling detail. It is there if you want it, fine if you don’t. No spoilers here, because My Ex-Life sustains a nice, purposeful plot tension even as it remains primarily a study in character, relationship and milieu. By the end, McCauley discovers something like a new “wholesome”: some pretty sturdy working redefinitions of family and of home for his characters.

When I sat down to talk on the Internet with Stephen McCauley, who co-chairs the Creative Writing program at Brandeis University, I asked him whether he sees himself as a novelist who balances pop readability with disguised literary ambition, and suggested that I do. “Because I teach at the university level and am surrounded by colleagues who are serious intellectuals,” he said, “I’ve often worried that my work isn’t ‘literary’ enough in their eyes. I think it’s held me back somewhat. Of course, 20 years in, I found out half of my colleagues are devoted mystery and sci-fi readers, so it was a lot of wasted neurotic energy. Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of neurotic energy to waste. Also, when you get to a certain age, you care less about all that. What a relief!”

McCauley’s first novel, 1987’s The Object of My Affection, was adapted into a big studio movie starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd: kind of the Holy Grail of the modern novelist right out of the gate. Another of his novels was turned into a French film (McCauley enjoys a large and enthusiastic French audience); and My Ex-Life sets up well for adaptation, too, with its iconic and picturesque setting and its escalating plot urgencies. I asked McCauley if he writes with the eventuality of film in mind.

“To be honest, I’ve been amazed that my novels have attracted filmmakers. They don’t have the kinds of plots that filmmakers seem to like best – tightly woven suspense, that kind of thing. And no special effects. Sometimes I’m not even sure I understand plot. My approach is: ‘Some people have some problems. Let’s see how they work them out.’ The things I like best in my books are the observations about life and the asides. These are almost impossible to convey on the screen.”

What about those characters, perched between disarming honesty and comforting illusions? For all his zing, McCauley is a writer who genuinely loves his characters and wants the best for them. “I think it’s the responsibility of the writer to see behind his characters’ defenses. I like to move all my characters toward greater self-awareness. It’s fun for me as a writer – and hopefully fun for my readers – to see even the most ‘poisonous’ characters (usually the minor ones) pull aside their defense mechanisms and display something good by the end. I never know where my novels are headed, but I liked these flawed characters so much, I really hoped they’d end in a better place than they were at the beginning. The trick is to make the ending earned and not wrap everything up too neatly,” leaving that for Hollywood.

Stephen McCauley will read from My Ex-Life at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock on Saturday, June 16 at 2 p.m. Copies of the novel will be available for purchase and signing. The Golden Notebook is located at 29 Tinker Street in Woodstock. For more information, visit https://goldennotebook.indielite.org and http://stephenmccauley.com.

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