NOTE: This title was first published in the UK (March 2020) as Our Little Cruelties.
Liz Nugent’s Little Cruelties is a family psychodrama in which Oedipus meets sociopathy. Darkly funny, but not quite soapy enough to make the very long trip through the lives of these very unlikable people wholly worthwhile, it nevertheless provides a night’s entertainment.
This is the story of the three Drumm brothers: when they were good they were…well, almost never good. When they were bad they were horrid. Spoiler: they spend most of the book being horrid. We open at the funeral of one of the brothers, and it all goes downhill for them from there.
As always in books of this type, the fault lies with the mother. Melissa Craig is a mid-level theater performer and later-in-life success whose thoughtless behavior and unequal distribution of affection stunts the boys’ emotional growth. Close in age and born lower-middle-class, they scrap for everything for her sake, and that’s how Melissa’s own melodramatic, undernourished ego likes it. Her way is to alternate mocking with inappropriate attempts at bonding with the boys like they’re a close girlfriend, and so mock – each other mainly – they do, while spurning her tales and advice in equal measure. Melissa is really too focused on her own career to be of any good to any of them, and she leaves most of their raising to her husband, who stays home and cleans up everyone’s messes while Melissa gives herself over to the stage.
The end result, naturally, is that all three of the boys end up with mommy issues, competing for the love that never comes. The eldest, William becomes a jet-setting film producer-slash-misogynist who says he loves his wife Susan, but whose ego ultimately leads him both to divorce and scandal; Luke, an emotional and oblivious space-cadet rock star and possible product of rape, with a severe drug habit, poorly managed mental illness, a martyr complex and an incandescent needy streak that denotes his position as the baby of the family; Brian, competent but filled with hate for his position as the hand-me-down-child, manages a mediocre talent agency while resenting his own lack of creative success, having failed as an art teacher.
The brothers all dislike one another for various reasons that cause them to wish each other dead. Brian hates William for “stealing” Susan – who may have fathered William’s daughter Daisy; and Luke, suffering from visual delusions that provoke both suicidal behavior and violent outbursts, causes resentment in Brian and William when they have to care for him. One brother has another committed. One brother ruins another brother’s relationship. One brother humiliates the daughter of another to claim revenge on his brother. As to who ends up in the casket and why, I will leave it to the reader to discover.
A word of warning. If you don’t like listening to the vagaries and whining of middle-aged men on the cusp of homicide, this probably won’t be a book you’ll enjoy. If you like jaw-dropping sociopaths, however, Little Cruelties will work for you. The book piles on drama after drama, soapy choice after soapy choice, until one waits for the arrival of aliens. ‘But then what happens?’ you find yourself wondering, drawn into the drama in spite of yourself.
The relationship between the Drumm boys reminded me of the one between Jimmy and Chuck McGill from Better Call Saul. The oedipal competition between them ultimately amounts to nothing but shared hatred, violence, and self immolation. But every character in the story is a grey hat – not wholly bad and not wholly good, innocent and victim. Luke is the most appealing of the brothers, and that’s because he’s at least self-aware. William and Brian and the women in their lives are all differing shades of the same monster. A monster that never really learns to smile.
Your threshold for drama, petty revenge and lack of internal development will determine the degree to which you like this book. Brian, William and Luke do not fully grow up, and they are never able to leave their working class Irish background behind. Not quite insincere enough to be a dark comedy, not quite sad enough to be a family drama, Little Cruelties is neither fish nor fowl – and altogether fascinating in its ability to captivate.
Warnings: Too many to name – everything from implied incest to rape to disordered eating to infidelity.
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