Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders: A Quirky Dance with an Unforgettable Family

Matthew Telemachus seems, at first glance, like a typical fourteen-year-old. Some of his problems are prosaic enough. His mom Irene, for example, has fallen on hard times, forcing her to move home, to once again share quarters with Matty’s grandfather and deeply eccentric Uncle Buddy. Matty is also nursing a lusty, hopeless crush on his step-cousin. Malice is two years older, after all, not to mention indisputably cool. She’s also totally indifferent to him.

But Matty isn’t ordinary, and neither is his family. At one time his grandparents, mom and uncles were a bona fide psychic act, billed as the Amazing Telemachus Family. True, grandfather Teddy was a straight up conman, able to pull off miraculous mind-reading feats by virtue of well-honed sleight-of-hand. Grandmother Maureen, though? Maureen was Gifted with a capital G, the real deal. She and Teddy met at a CIA-sponsored investigation into psychic abilities. Somehow in the process of keeping the wool firmly pulled over their testers’ eyes, Teddy found his way into both the intelligence community and Maureen’s heart.

As Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders opens, the Amazing Telemachus Family’s career as exotic performers has long since died on the vine. The family was discredited on national television; the act fell apart. Maureen was obliged to continue remote viewing work for U.S. Intelligence until her tragic, premature death. Now in 1995, Teddy and the three kids are batching along, in many ways still mourning her loss.

Maureen’s genetic gifts to her children took different forms. Irene—inconveniently for all her loved ones—is a human lie detector. On his rare good days, Uncle Frank is telekinetic. As for Buddy… well. He generally can’t be convinced to explain his visions, or even to speak. Mostly, he just engages in an endless, silent round of baffling home renovations while wondering what year he’s in.

As the three Telemachus siblings tread water against misery and the always-hovering threat of financial ruin, Matty begins to come into powers of his own.

The subject matter of Spoonbenders makes it something of a charming literary stepcousin to books like Katherine Dunn’s unforgettably savage novel Geek Love and Connie Willis’s more recent book Crosstalk. Like the former, Spoonbenders is a tightly focused family story about a group of performing tricksters—freaks, if you will. But where Geek Love is a knotty, searing, emotionally difficult book, whose characters often seem bent on tearing each other apart for the sheer joy of destruction, this novel has a comic and romantic bent. In tone, it has more in common with Willis’s comedy about the hazards of dating under the influence of telepathy.

Spoonbenders has a complete and pleasing story arc for each and every member of the Telemachus clan—Gregory’s website says it has already been optioned for television, and I am not at all surprised. Along the way, they all go to enormous lengths to sabotage their own happiness. Matty, for example, can’t bring himself to tell his mom about his powers. He feels bad about them, because Irene wants so desperately to lead a normal life. Meanwhile Irene herself is hunting romance in the single parent chatrooms emerging on AOL, attempting to handicap her treacherous ability to detect every lie, no matter how small, when she talks to someone in person. A requirement of total honesty, after all, sets an impossible standard for any potential relationship. (This, too, is an echo of Crosstalk, but Gregory’s approach is messier and more convincing: Irene’s romance was one of the things I loved most in this book, which is filled with delightful relationships.)

Oblivious to his daughter and grandson’s problems, Teddy moves through a world of his own, living in the past and running small cons on women in grocery stores, apparently just to keep a hand in. The CIA is circling him, shark-like, hoping they might find a replacement for Maureen camping on one of the bunk beds Buddy keeps bolting, randomly, to the basement walls of the family home. The skeptic who debunked the Telemachus clan is out there somewhere, and Frankie is energetically operating pyramid schemes, cheating at roulette, and getting in ever deeper as he borrows money from mobsters.

Even Maureen is still in play, sending her husband letters from beyond the grave, and collaborating with Buddy on a project that may redeem the whole family, but at a terrible cost to him.

Gregory has a wry, clear, powerful voice, and his characters leap off the page. They are charismatic enough to hold the attention, yet imbued with the kind of qualities that make them seem like people anyone might meet in their day to day lives. Despite their powers, the Telemachus clan come off like the folks next door. Paranormal abilities haven’t kept them from craving or losing the essentials of human existence: security, respect, connection, and above all affection. The result of all their efforts, somehow, is a book that is unabashedly lovable.

The Spoonbenders plot doesn’t offer a huge number of surprises. Its story unfolds stylishly, and all of its oddball romances thrilled me to my bones, but it wasn’t hard to see the ending coming. Even so, this novel’s resolution left me with a sense of genuine, unalloyed emotional uplift. It is the kind of happy conclusion Hollywood films frequently try to deliver… and unlike so many of those cinematic attempts, this story doesn’t strike a wrong note, or descend into cheese. Gregory has written a story about a family in freefall, one that manages to not only land on its feet, but to find those feet clad in elegant dancing shoes, ready to deliver a spin and final flourish as a prelude to a well-deserved fictional bow.

Spoonbenders is available June 26th from Knopf Doubleday.

A.M. Dellamonica‘s newest book is the Prix-Aurora Award nominated The Nature of a Pirate, and you can read the first chapter here! She has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com, including the time travel horror story “The Color of Paradox.” There’s also, “The Glass Galago,” the third of a series of stories called The Gales. This story and its predecessors, “Among the Silvering Herd,” and “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” are prequels to this newest novel and its predecessor, Child of a Hidden Sea. If sailing ships, pirates, magic and international intrigue aren’t your thing, though, her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Or check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” a tie-in to the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

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