The ugly side of marital strife
Mr. Peanut, Adam Ross’ stunningly dark debut, is, on its surface, a compelling thriller, and at its core, a grisly psychological and postmodern probe, a story that takes as its forebears both Scott Turow and Italo Calvino.
Through three men’s interlocking though asymmetrical narratives, Mr. Peanut tells the story of all marital strife—with an emphasis on the ugly side, replete with violence, pain, inertia, manipulation, sexual longing and destruction. The first husband, video-game designer David Pepin, is both terrified of and obsessed with his morbidly obese wife’s death—imagining her in any number of creatively fatal scenarios. That is, until she actually turns up dead, from a reaction to a severe peanut allergy, and David becomes the prime suspect. The second is the detective assigned to Pepin’s case, Ward Hastroll—no stranger to fantasies of uxoricide himself—whose world turns upside down when his once complacent and loving wife becomes voluntarily, irrationally and then defiantly bedridden. And the final, Hastroll’s partner, is the infamous Sam Sheppard (from the real-life 1950s case which inspired The Fugitive), convicted of killing his wife and then exonerated 10 years later.
All three stories are gripping––from Alice Pepin’s perverse weight gain and loss, to an imagined retelling of the days leading up to Marilyn Sheppard’s murder––but all ultimately inconclusive. After all, Ross seems to say, when it comes to culpability in a marriage, how can there be objective truth?
To say this is a thematically rich book is hardly to do Mr. Peanut justice. For with every theme Ross presents—the Hitchcockian fallen hero (the Pepins met in a seminar on the great filmmaker), the classic “wrong man” trope, the Möbius strips and Escher imagery that emerge again and again, lest we forget the unending nature of marriage, love and murder––there is a way in which this too-clever-to-be-neat story resists such thematics, indeed calls into question the expectation/fulfillment nature of storytelling itself. And yet Ross cleaves closely to all the pleasures of the genre: mystery, suspense, romance, surprise. And in this sense, Mr. Peanut is highly unique—a disturbingly funny and remarkably poignant novel from one of the year’s most promising new voices.
Interview with Adam Ross for Mr. Peanut.