Book review: ‘Kids these Days’

Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionFebruary 15, 2014 

  • Fiction

    Kids These Days

    Drew Perry

    Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 320 pages

From time to time, a parachutist appears overhead in Drew Perry’s wryly funny second novel, “Kids These Days.” He is “the flying man” who regularly tips his hat to the Ingrams, Walter and Alice, late of Charlotte, a 30-something couple who have fled to Florida in the wake of the mortgage banking crisis.

Not surprisingly, Walter admires him: “The nice thing about having a parachute, it occurred to me, was that when something did go wrong, you already had your parachute ready. Accounting for calamity is built into the plan.”

Perry turns once again to the perils of parenthood, this time paralleling them with the effects of a little white-collar crime on a reluctant father-to-be.

Walter and Alice, it turns out, have terrible timing. Just as Alice gets pregnant, Walter loses his job at the bank. The good news is that they can live for free in a condo left vacant by Alice’s late great aunt. The bad news is that Walter gets a job working for his brother-in-law, whose investments soon prove to be more shady than smart.

From the get-go, Walter admits to grave misgivings about fatherhood. “I’d agreed to it – the baby – because I’d decided that was what was owed. That if your wife, whom you loved beyond measure, wanted a child, you were supposed to think it was a fine and perfect plan.” And he does, in theory. But in reality, he’s petrified.

Soon, he has doubts about his brother-in-law and new boss, Mid (short for Middleton). They begin when Mid introduces Walter to his new duties – supervising two ice-making machines, a locksmith business, a sunglass-and-beach-umbrella shop, a sea kayak rental, a pizza parlor and the building of several ersatz fish-camp shacks – and escalate when Mid offers Walter a $30,000 check on his first day. It’s easier than paying him a salary or reporting him as an employee. Within days, Mid gets thrown in jail for what he calls “a setback.” Soon, Walter’s fear of fatherhood is eclipsed by more immediate terrors: of being arrested for abetting tax evasion, drug dealing and money laundering.

Mid is a Zen-like white-collar criminal whose decency is at odds with his crimes, and he downplays everything with a cool-headed charm that never fails to have the opposite effect on his jumpy bro-in-law. (Mid: “They seem to have me on tax evasion.” Walter: “What kind?” Mid: “The evasive kind.”) Perry deftly weaves in two secondary plot lines – Alice’s troubled pregnancy and a looming crisis with Mid’s daughter, Delton, who comes to live with the Ingrams. The more Walter sees of this teenager, the more he despairs of his own child’s future.

Delton’s daily life smells like teen spirit. “Kids were sending naked pictures of each other back and forth on their cell phone,” she says. “Kids were off birth control and using the rhythm method because birth control made them fat … Some kids had sworn off having actual sex. Not for religious reasons – it was just easier … Some kids are getting their genitals pierced,” she tells Walter and Alice. “But I don’t think I will.”

Not until he’s watched Mid’s world careen out of control does it dawn on him that there won’t be any parachutes or safety nets – and if the book has a flaw, it’s when Perry makes this a little too obvious. But it’s a minor flaw in a book that never pretends to be anything more than what it is. Honest, filled with doubts, often hilarious and just a little bit scary, “Kids Like Us” is sure to appeal to all parents, even the ones trying to get all their ducks in a row first. Especially them.

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