It’s a striking beginning, made more so by its place outside of time. Rebekah Frumkin’s The Comedown is not told linearly, but through a string of chapters from the perspectives of interconnected characters from two families, the Bloom-Mittwochs and the Marshalls. A pair of family trees at the beginning of the book represents the two lineages, and each of the 14 chapters comes from someone connected to the aforementioned patriarchs, often either scorned or abandoned by them or by one of their offspring. The chapters cover huge chunks of time, from the respective characters’ births to the book’s fictional present, around 2009.
The trees and the nonlinear nature of the book create ample opportunities for dramatic irony, of which Frumkin, in her debut novel, makes wonderful use. When Leland Sr. is reflecting at the hotel in Tampa, he considers the risks involved with building relationships with other people:
He thought how there was no way to know how long loving someone could last, or whether it was even a good investment to begin with. That’s what kept people watching all those television soap operas. That’s what kept people praying in shul. They wanted to know how the other people and things they loved would turn out — whether they’d be destroyed by them or loved back.
Throughout his life, Leland Sr. did his fair share of loving and destroying, though it’s not always clear whether he sees it that way. He cheats on and then leaves his first wife and child in 1983, and then leaves his second wife a widow and his child fatherless in 1999 when he commits suicide. The woman with whom he cheats is Reggie’s estranged wife, Natasha Marshall. Their affair ends abruptly the day one of her 13-year-old sons catches them together. Even so, those he loved tended to love him back, at least for a time. Mental illness and drug addiction linked reciprocated love and eventual destruction: for Leland, the two could never be mutually exclusive. Despite the fundamental sentiment of Leland’s reflection, there seems to be little uncertainty about the inevitably tragic end to his most beloved relationships.
The exception to this rule is not a fortunate one. Reggie, who Leland Sr. frequently calls his best friend, found him to be a reprehensible character. Outside of their narrow interaction of drug dealer and drug consumer, Reggie wanted nothing to do with him. He was, as Reggie said, a “stupid ass […] the kind of stupid that couldn’t take a hint.” At times, he considered killing him:
He hated him but hurting him would feel like kicking a stray dog. He had a philosophy that the kind of person who deserved to be on the receiving end of a barrel was also the kind of person who’d been on the firing end, and Leland Sr. had never been on the firing end.
This comes first as a depressing surprise. When Leland Sr. describes their relationship, readers trust him implicitly. Every additional mention that undermines it as the book goes forward is a punch to the gut. While Leland Sr. leaves his wives and children, and ultimately humanity altogether, in his heart, he always remains true to Reggie.
This type of dissonance is the biggest return Frumkin draws out of her roving perspectives. Rarely do characters in The Comedown believe themselves to be or in the wrong, but they often are. This is clearest in a pivotal scene that takes place after Leland Sr.’s funeral. Leland Jr. confronts Diedre, his father’s second wife, and demands that she let him go to her home and take back the possessions his father took when he left, which he believes are rightfully his. Diedre, having just lost her husband, is not in a position to fight back: “She agreed to it because he wore an expensive suit and threatened to sue her if she didn’t comply.” She feels alone and scared, because Leland Jr. is trying to make her feel alone and scared. When Leland Jr. reflects on it in his chapter, though, he refers to it as “legal business” and sees his actions as justified. Importantly, his recollections erase the hostile tone that made the interaction especially horrifying the first time around. Parts of the interaction are run back again in Leland Jr.’s wife’s chapter. She sees her husband fall “into aggressive lockstep with Diedre” before he announces that he’ll be following her to her home. Her telling has compassion for her husband and recognizes how this stems from his anger at his father for abandoning him, but she can’t help but be a little horrified by Leland Jr.’s behavior. Nine years later, Diedre’s son Lee Jr. is still haunted by the memory. The event has deeply scarred him. On his 18th birthday, he drunkenly sends an email to Leland Jr. demanding the return of his family’s possessions. His mom is a manager at OfficeMax and they’re scraping by on her hourly wage while Leland Jr., much wealthier, has no real need for the valuables he took. Unsurprisingly, this is unsuccessful.
Frumkin’s technique of replaying scenes from multiple perspectives effectively gives readers a 360-degree view of how something happened. Most importantly, however, it is useful for exploring the totality of how her characters’ actions affect those around them, and how each character lives with it. The scope of The Comedown is such that everyone is in close proximity to a tragedy at all times. Frumkin’s juxtaposition makes it clear that what these characters do to one another in the book is both awful and perfectly human.
The contrast born out of The Comedown’s structure also makes room for Frumkin to explore her characters’ wide-ranging sociopolitical circumstances. The differences are generational, racial, cultural, and economic, and she writes clearly on how their existence and collisions shape the lives of her characters. Aside from the aforementioned email from Lee Jr. to Leland Jr., the most compelling exploration of the tension this can bring about is the lives of Reggie and Natasha Marshall’s twins, Caleb and Aaron.
Aaron works for a real estate development company in Los Angeles while Caleb is a lawyer in their hometown of Cleveland. They’ve both found ways out of the poverty in which they grew up, but they are on divergent paths. Caleb spends his time, according to his brother, “living out his messiah dream as Lawyer for the Poor.” Caleb is only slightly more generous to himself:
The only thing keeping him in the Midwest was inertia. Inertia and what psychotherapists would probably call a savior complex. He wasn’t afraid of admitting to it. Better to be a savior than a sociopath.
The brothers share a similar impulse to ascribe pathology to what seems, on the surface, to be relatively normal moral behavior. This is made more striking by their consideration of Aaron’s job. A colleague is trying to get Aaron to help him purchase public housing complexes in Lynwood. Aaron, at the behest of his wife Netta, an accomplished artist whose work documents the lives of black subjects afflicted with poverty, is attempting to save the public housing and steer the buyer elsewhere. This despite the lingering negative feelings he has toward public complexes from his time living in one. He “hated how it felt living there, how people treated him for living there, how the other people there were always trying to beat him up and rip him off.” Neither brother takes much of a psychological interest in the origin of these feelings. For Aaron, it seems that the trauma of his childhood makes him resistant to doing the thing he knows is right, the thing that’s best for the most people and aligned with his moral position. What Frumkin is illuminating here is the manner in which pursuits that make more money — and Aaron makes a lot of money — are almost always considered more normal despite their destructive social value. That dynamic’s opposite, sacrificing money for a job that is fulfilling in a different way, is just as rational, but because it bucks capitalist logic, it requires an explanation. The fullness with which she approaches each perspective is what makes this possible.
Alongside these conflicts within the characters’ own lives, Frumkin also explores society-level phenomena. The Bloom-Mittwoch family is Jewish and the Marshall family is black, and their similarities and differences are crucial. Leland Sr., a hapless incompetent with a philosophy degree, falls backward into a job because his friend runs a scrap shop. Reggie, a much savvier person, struggling to give his children a better life than his own, finds his way into drug dealing. He’s exceptional at it, though the requisite hazards catch up to him. There’s little ambiguity about how things would have gone if their resources and privileges were flipped.
One of the issues on which the families align is on the subject of law enforcement. Reggie believes “you really [have] to pity anybody stupid enough to believe in the police” while Leland Sr. tells Leland Jr. one night that “there’s actually no such thing as a straight cop. They’re a gang. A violent gang.” Their experiences come from different places. Reggie has dealt with racist police practices his whole life, as a black man and as a drug dealer. Leland Sr. was a hippie at Kent State and saw the progressive armament of enforcers working to squelch protesters until his friends were among those eventually shot and killed. The Comedown also explores how this manifests concretely. Aaron, at 14, routinely finds himself and his friends subjected to baseless frisking.
As the book goes on, Frumkin’s narrators come from further down the family tree, which is a handy means of exposing generational divides and inheritance. Lee Jr. is the youngest family member. He is diagnosed as having bipolar disorder in a significantly less stigmatizing (though still needlessly stigmatizing) world. The illicit drugs are better, which is good and bad. More than this, though, he’s inherited a world where, unlike his father or half-brother, he doesn’t see much of a future for himself. When he begins college in 2009, the economy is in a recession and the future feels clear in its darkness. The structures that propped up the successful people in his family are not there for him, and he does not know what to do. Still, Frumkin also shows the promise ahead. Lee Jr.’s best friend in college, born Edward Jonathan Phillips but called, at different times, Tarzan, Tweety, or New Person, is a gender fluid character with a safe space for exploring and expressing their true self.
The matter-of-fact approach to writing about the complicated web of reasons why people’s lives turn out the way they do is essential to The Comedown’s success. Frumkin is also an accomplished journalist who has written about mental health, sex work, and other areas where the subjects are often mistreated or misunderstood. It shows here. The Comedown’s characters are cruel to one another and themselves for predictable reasons as well as for surprising ones. They are loving to one another and themselves in the same way. At its core, the book is about relationships and the joy and pain they bring. In that realm, and others, it’s a resounding success.
Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic. He has written for the New Republic, The New Inquiry, WBUR’s The ARTery, and elsewhere.