cover image Watch Your Mouth

Watch Your Mouth

Daniel Handler / Author Thomas Dunne Books $23.95 (272p) ISBN

So twisted that even its protagonist can't keep up with the perverse turns of plot, this melodramatic satire of family life trembles between virtuosity and utter collapse. Handler (The Basic Eight) sets up the first half of his comically warped novel as a mock opera, complete with stage and orchestra directions. Joseph, self-cast as the young hero, is a college student just finishing his junior year. Urged by his insatiable girlfriend, Cynthia Glass, to spend the summer sleeping by her side, Joseph moves in with her family in Pittsburgh, where the two plan to work as counselors at a Jewish day camp. Dinner at the Glass house the first night clues Joseph in to the family's bizarre fascinations--incest, science, Kabbalah--but he still has no idea what he's getting into. After closer acquaintance with the creepily rational Dr. Glass (baritone), his high-strung, opera-loving wife, Mimi (soprano) and their precocious young son Stephen (tenor), he continues to be bemused, though unspeakable acts are clearly taking place offstage. Handler's baroque prose curls in elegant arabesques, but his elaborate plotting too often overwhelms his characters. Weakest of all is his portrait of the doomed Cynthia (with the obvious pun of her diminutive ""Cyn""), who never quite emerges from Joseph's horny descriptions of their romance. After the opera-melodrama's weird but tantalizing climax, involving death and the golem myth, the novel actually recovers its narrative balance as the psychologically scarred Joseph turns to New Age recovery paperbacks, which replace opera as Handler's satiric model. Layered with coincidences and surprises, Joseph's on-the-lam nine-step self-help program achieves some of the novel's potential as a ""Turn of the Screwball"" black comedy. (July)