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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

All Issues
SEPT 2010 Issue

Emerging from the Fog

Matthew Sharpe
You Were Wrong
(Bloomsbury, 2010)

A first step into Matthew Sharpe’s latest novel, You Were Wrong, has the puzzling impression of being given an algebra problem without precedent to solve it. Told from the perspective of a beaten-down schlub-of-a-lost-soul, Karl, Sharpe nonetheless manages, like always, to offer his readers a glimpse of something that can be discovered in the end, as if the variables in our lonely protagonist’s life need only to be reordered and figured together into something like a whole number.

You Were Wrong can be called another coming-of-age from Sharpe, but one that’s expertly crafted from a series of non-sequitur encounters that gradually coalesce into an odd and beautiful narrative. Set on Long Island and cast with broken families, it is as much an archetypal coming-of-age as it is a story about American suburbia and its most recent lost generation. Karl Floor is as pathetic a character as the rest in this work, but there’s something we immediately like about him, whether it’s the sign-of-the-times fact that he’s still living at home at 26 (“He wasn’t born wan and slow, but misfortune made him so, and so he felt he would remain until death”), or his rambling but uncanny inner monologue, replete with dry wit and intelligence that falls just short of intellect, but always hits the right note.

If Sharpe’s novel lacks anything, though, it’s certainly not smarts. His narrative approach brings our perspective into line with Karl’s, such that we feel his confusion without falling into frustration. To prove that he’s done this purposely, Sharpe sets Karl in several scenes opposite the most erudite character in the story, his stepfather, Larchmont Jones. The stabbing comedy in their relationship is priceless, and abrasive enough to heat Karl to the point of change:

He knew Jones kept a permanent record of every aggression and would repay each in triplicate with any of his own far more various and refined modes of attack, often long after the fact, perhaps posthumously. Karl didn’t care. A beautiful not-caring was happening to Karl; he knew he wasn’t in charge of it and didn’t care about that either. Things were really and truly changing, whether for the better or the worse hardly mattered.

And like any good coming-of-age, this one isn’t without a love story. We can’t have expected Sharpe to give us anything that can be called “classic,” though. Karl’s relationship with the anti-heroine, Vetch, is in many ways his single motivator—the thing that bloodies him up more than anything else. For this reason, we’re made to be suspicious of her from the beginning (“She did not have a mask, nor was she carrying any of his family’s possessions, so Karl may be forgiven for not immediately identifying her as a burglar”) all the way through to the very end (“There was some oddness about her, too, and her husband was not in sight”). But like Karl, Vetch is a loveable failure—an  underdog—so we happily root for her.

Perhaps the best thing about You Were Wrong, though, is Sharpe’s willingness to beat up his characters. Their bodies are as vulnerable and flawed as their psyches, and it may just be the most believable thing about them—their ability to bleed, to fall down, to get knocked up, beaten to a pulp, fellated, drugged, and drunk. These are real people we’re watching, and Sharpe refuses to romanticize them. At story’s end, we leave bruised but proud, more sure of ourselves, with some kind of direction.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

All Issues