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Book Review: The First Bad Man

Cheryl Glickman is an office manager at a female self-defence, video-production company called Open Palm.  Ironically, despite the nature of her work, she is a passive, put-upon lady with her anxiety manifesting itself in a Globus Hystericus.  She lives an uneventful, loveless life, until her bosses’ daughter, Clee, comes to live with her.

July has written a very bizarre novel!  Her characters are full of perverted idiosyncrasies, but they are not so far off the radar you feel they couldn’t exist. There is Phillip Bettelheim, Cheryl’s colleague, who needs Cheryl’s blessing in order to consummate a relationship with a young teenager; the chromotherapy doctors, Ruth-Anne and Dr.Broyard, who play at S & M games, and then there’s Clee, a surly teenager with bad fungal foot odour and domineering, self-important parents.  Odd, yes! but you feel July knows exactly what she is doing.  Bizarreness for bizarreness sake doesn’t work unless it is moderated by something mundane; in this case, bizarreness is tempered by these characters’ suburban existence and unremarkable lives.

Certain sections of the book made me feel so uncomfortable, I could read only a page at a time, fortifying myself with a sip of tea, before returning to read the next page.  Thankfully, July is a humorous writer. Laugh-out-loud moments act as a release valve to the awkward tension she so capably builds up.  In one irksome scene, Cheryl arrives early for her chromotherapy appointment.  Inadvertently, she overhears Ruth-Anne and Dr.Broyard’s acrimonious conversation  “Did you- Her crying was so violent that she could barely talk. “Did you say that because you want me to” - the last part came out in a shrill chirp - “Blow you?”.  Cheryl, about to leap out with a ta-dah!, reverses fast: “My backwards steps were silent and swift.  No one had seen me.”. The book is full of such scenes that leaves one squirming with anxiety but amused.

From S & M to lesbianism, The First Bad Man discusses sexuality with a frank openness,  explored through the characters’ colourful language that would make the most hardened sailor blush.  July delves deep into her characters’ psyche either by interior monologues, such as, Cheryl’s unbidden sexual fantasies or Bettelheim’s inappropriate sexting. The consequences of knowing the characters’ sexual thoughts makes them strangely vulnerable, even when they are being the sexual aggressor.  For example, Bettelheim conveniently brushes away 51 years’ difference between him and the teenager he’s pursuing: “if a person happens to be born in the tiny speck of your lifetime, why quibble over mere years?”.  It’s an age old question, one Chaucer explored in the Miller’s Tale and one July explores now. Does Bettelheim have a point, even if he is deluded by ‘mere years’?  She’s sexually legal, but at the same time the thought of an old man pursuing a young girl is still unpalatable, if not, in Chaucerian terms, verging on the ridiculous.  July doesn’t pass judgement, but she does make you question why.

July is well established in the short-story genre with No One Belongs Here More than You.  So it’s a delight to discover her first novel is equally polished, tightly written and wonderfully entertaining.  If you’re happy to be mildly disturbed and enjoy diving deep into a character’s psyche, July is the writer for you.

Written by Rachel Boser.


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