Here is a wonderful review from Janey Robertson of my novel, Fergus Falls. Her website, wordsfromjaney.com, is temporarily offline, so she has graciously allowed its publication here. –JB.
Fergus Falls is a brilliant debut novel from author Joseph Berman. The title refers to an imagined version of a real city in rural Minnesota, but the setting is hardly indicative of what the novel has to offer. Berman’s Fergus Falls (no italics) is a bustling metropolis on the prairie, complete with egotistical capitalists, incompetent politicians, both struggling and successful artists, and everything else you might expect in a set of tales from New York City or Los Angeles. The surprising theme of Fergus Falls is the power of personal fantasy, and the dangerous consequences when the fantasies run amok. The story also offers a parable for modern life, thanks to our nation’s real-life poster child for narcissism and sociopathic self-delusion.
The author insists that the bulk of the writing predates the ascension of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. (Fun fact: 45 is also the number of chapters in the book.) Nevertheless, fragments of our fatuous faux-leader seem to infuse the Double-F’s triumvirate of leading men. Mayor Mingalone clings tenaciously to elected office despite the ongoing damage to his mental health and psyche. Real-estate potentate José Hosea boisterously promotes his name-branded and far-flung empire while maintaining a casual indifference to both the law and social propriety. And the mayor’s twelve-year old nephew, Tommy Mingalone, is a self-proclaimed genius in an unappreciated corner of capitalism (acquiring frequent flyer miles) that he readily exploits, with aid and cheering from devoted minions.
Perhaps Trump is the invisible taunter on the characters’ shoulders; decked out in iconic red pajamas and a pitchfork; whispering dares and schemes and awful advice.
If Trump is the devil of Fergus Falls, then its lone angel is its leading lady, newspaper columnist Evelyn Kopak, proclaimed as “the font of reason and sanity in a troubled town.” Unlike everyone else in the narrative, Evelyn tolerates not a pinch of foolishness or subterfuge, challenging all the lies (big and small) that people tell one another to make their lives either easier or more successful. Her main adversary is the mayor, whom she calls out repeatedly and mercilessly. My favorite Kopak line: “You pay for the surgeon, Mingalone, I’ll bring the frying pan and onions,” written in response to Hizzoner’s claim that he’d eat his own liver if anyone could deny his accomplishments. Yet Evelyn also challenges the newspaper publisher, who is her best friend and boss. His transgression: a photograph of his old girlfriend that he displays in his office but denies exists.
The novel ping-pongs from the viewpoint of one character to another: an appliance store proprietor in one chapter, then a struggling postal clerk with mommy issues, then the town’s aging society matron coming to terms with mortality. All of them, except Evelyn Kopak, entertain their own fantasies about themselves and the world they live in—and what a collection of fantasies it is. We get a James Bond fetishist and a gypsy fortune teller and her dingbat clients. We get a talent-free poet and Ikebana artist and an equally talent-free writer of romance novels. There’s Bert Bessler, the night janitor, who imagines himself in the arms of the luscious wife of the mayor—and collapses in tears when that very opportunity arises. The local baseball team soars to greatness with the arrival of superstar Roberto Hoyes—an Hispanic take on Roy Hobbes, the title character of The Natural by Bernard Malamud (who also shows up!) Yet Roberto is not whom he appears to be, for reasons both G- and R-rated. His shower habits are not exactly suitable for general consumption.
I have merely dented the surface of the novel’s scope and ambition. The cast members of Fergus Falls keep piling on top of each other, and it would be impossible to do them all justice without taking up 741 pages, which happens to be the length of the novel. Be prepared for one long but entertaining journey, and an extraordinarily worthwhile journey to boot.
Why such a long book? I get the impression that all the twists and turns of Fergus Falls, the seemingly unending parade of characters, the amazing complexity of the narrative, the tropes of horror and science fiction and disaster movies and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink genre, if that exists—it’s all meant to distract the reader from the hope and pain that launched the novel all the way back in the Prologue, which was set all the way back in the 1920s. Eventually, and not surprisingly, the author’s true voice and true pain finally reveal themselves.
The novel also has something to say about gender roles. The foul-ups of the world, the disasters and damage and rampaging idiocy, they are all the by-products of the egos and delusions of powerful men. The testosterone is on full display in a near-the-end chapter called “The Celebrities.” Here the men of Fergus Falls are mustered to keep disaster at bay, each goaded onward by one of the three celebrities of the chapter title. (I dare any reader to predict who those celebrities turn out to be. Go on, I dare you!) All efforts fail, of course, because all of them misconstrue the disaster that is actually unfolding.
After the bombast and pomposity of “The Celebrities”, I was expecting a chapter that switches viewpoint to the female. I also was expecting that the women, somehow, would clean up and fix the mess that the men had left them, because that is what women do, and that would be a useful exit and wrap-up for the polyhedral plot. But I was wrong. The next chapter also focuses on men—specifically, four men drinking in a hotel bar. However, while the women are shunted to the side, they are the nexus of all discussion. One of the discussed women is Chloe, an old bum looking for a handout. There’s also the wife of one of the drinkers, who seems as alienated from her husband as he is from her. Mostly there’s Evelyn Kopak, whose newspaper column is read aloud and commented upon. Kopak, however, has given up. It’s her last column. Her last message to her readers, both in and out of context, is “You’re on your own.”
This is a sobering, unhappy, yet disarmingly welcome message. In this crazy world of Fergus Falls, the women are not able to fix the mess that the men created. We can only hope that the real world stands a better chance.
Of course, the women still have the insight to figure out the truth. The chapter ends with a singular truth spoken by the most unlikely and unforeseeable of female characters. For the first and only time in all the long pages, someone identifies precisely what’s wrong with Fergus Falls (the urban setting, not the novel itself) and she needs only a single sentence to do so. It’s one of the most delicious moments of the book.
Go buy Fergus Falls, go read it, and come back and tell me that it isn’t the greatest, damnedest, most incredible piece of fiction you’ve ever invested your attention in. Then go vote Donald Trump out of office.