The book jacket of Mona Simpson’s new novel promises two boys who “struggle to deal with the existence of evil and concoct modes of revenge on their villains,” but that’s just advertising copy. “Evil” hardly describes the pathetic duplicity of the antagonist, Eli. In fact, Casebook’s real theme is our need to deceive ourselves, even—or especially—when the evidence that we are fools becomes overwhelming.
The book begins in 2001, as the narrator’s family is falling apart. Miles’s father works in the entertainment industry, and his mother is a mathematician at UCLA. It’s hard to imagine what drew them together in the first place, just as it’s difficult to fathom the attraction Eli has for Miles’s mother, Irene. He’s awkward and over-bearing and cheap. Yes, he claims to work for the National Science Foundation, but is that really a solid basis for a lasting relationship?
Casebook is presented as a prose follow-up to a bestselling comic book written by Miles and his best friend, Hector, also a child of divorce. Hector chimes in occasionally via footnotes, and there are a few pages of rudimentary cartoons to show his contribution to Two Sleuths, but mostly the book focuses on Miles and his gradual realization that he needs a steady father figure almost as much as his mother needs a lover.
Notwithstanding its meandering storyline, Casebook is an enjoyable read. Miles, who is writing the book as a college student, isn’t shy about revealing his many adolescent faults and naïve assumptions. He is overweight for much of the novel, and Simpson deftly describes the many small psychological wounds inflicted on portly teens by their peers.
The secondary characters are also nice drawn: Hector, Miles’s indefatigable sidekick; Marge, Irene’s loyal and wisecracking best friend; and Ben Orion, the private detective Miles and Hector hire to look into Eli’s past. Gruff but compassionate, Ben turns out to be the most paternal character in the book.
The mystery of Eli’s true identity is solved by the reader long before Miles and Hector figure it out, so the novel becomes a kind of “casebook” showing what happens when a skilled writer foregrounds character and place at the expense of plot. Like growing up itself, Casebook is a hit and miss experience, but, as the nebbishy Superboy heroes of Two Sleuths might say, “Is that so bad?”