A few years ago I read with delight “Lily and the Octopus,” a 2016 debut novel by Steven Rowley. It’s a heartwarming story about Ted Flask, a gay, single writer unable to open himself up to intimacy except through the unwavering companionship of Lily, his adored elderly dachshund. When Lily is diagnosed with cancer, Ted vows to save her by any means necessary. He conceives of Lily’s brain tumor as an “octopus,” leading to flights of fantasy in which Ted and Lily battle the voracious sea creature. By turns comical and poignant, this adventure spins into magic realism, exquisitely evoking truths of how it feels to love fiercely, how difficult it can be to let go, and how the fight for those we love is the greatest fight of all. “Lily and the Octopus” was warmly received by critics: “In generous helpings of bittersweet humanity, Rowley has written an immensely poignant and touchingly relatable tale that readers (particularly dog lovers) will love.”
Rowley’s next book, in 2019, was also charming, even though it wasn’t about dogs and didn’t receive the acclaim of his first book. In “The Editor” he tells the story of a struggling writer, James Smale, in 1990s New York City, who finally gets his big break when his novel sells to an editor at a major publishing house. That editor? It’s none other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis! Jackie, or Mrs. Onassis as she’s known in the office, is crazy about James’s candidly autobiographical novel, one that exposes his own dysfunctional family, especially his relationship with his mother. And when the book’s forthcoming publication threatens to completely undo already brittle relationships, both within his family and with his partner, James finds that he can’t finish the manuscript. Jackie and James develop an unexpected friendship, and she pushes him to write an authentic ending, encouraging him to head home to confront the truth about his problems with his mother. When a long-held family secret is revealed, he realizes his editor may have had a larger plan that goes beyond the page.
Rowley knows how to pull at the heartstrings and in his recently published “The Guncle,” (Putnam) he doesn’t just toy with sentiment and schmaltz, he invites readers to move right in. He lands in that pleasing spot between hilarity and heart in this endearing charmer about a famous sitcom star who becomes the reluctant, eccentric guardian of his niece and nephew.
When 9-year-old Maisie and 6-year-old Grant O’Hara lose their mother, their father knows he needs to deal with a drug habit he developed during his wife’s long illness. He asks his older brother, Patrick O’Hara, who is highly unsuitable on the surface, to take the children for the summer while he checks himself into rehab. GUP (short for Gay Uncle Patrick or Guncle), as the children call him, is horrified. His star has faded after being the star of a hit TV series along the line of “Friends.” He’s grieving, too. Before Sara married his brother, she was his best friend from college. And, as we learn in flashbacks, and Patrick’s never really gotten over the loss of his partner, Joe, killed by a drunk driver years earlier. Patrick isn’t sure he’s up to the job of caretaker, but there’s no way he’s going to let his neurotic uptight older sister, Clara, take the kids, who he refers to as his young “niblings.” “What they need is some fun,” he tells her. “What they don’t need is someone trying to take their mother’s place.”
Patrick is an excessively entertaining character who reminds one of actor Nathan Lane, although taller and more buffed. He’s forty-ish, but his semi-retired state, along with his endless stream of Oscar Wilde quotes, references to classic movies, and kindly declarations make him seem decades older.
Culture shock doesn’t begin to describe the adjustments the kids must make when they spend the summer away from their Connecticut neighborhood and in Patrick’s opulent Palm Springs desert home. As GUP explains to the kids, they’re all on a break from their old lives and his mid-century home provides a fabulous setting for the change. Patrick is a sucker for the excesses of Hollywood success, including a Tesla he never drives and high-end appliances like the Toto Washlet toilet that initially frightens Grant – and leads to a series of running gags. In between meals at local restaurants and trips to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and the Cabazon Dinosaurs, the kids spend a lot of the hot summer in GUP’s pool playing with outlandish floats, which include a flamingo, a Jeff Koons balloon dog, a slice of pizza, a diamond ring and a lobster their mother gave Patrick to remind him of his East Coast roots. GUP becomes a skillful hand at applying sunscreen, navigating dietary battles, (a “vegetarian lacto-ovo pescatarian,” he’s appalled by their love for bacon and hotdogs), and fielding questions like “Why do you like boys?” and “Why do you eat fish but not pigs?” GUP is determined to give the kids an “edu-gay-tion.”
Much of the humor involves digs at Hollywood culture (the author was a L.A. screenwriter for years). These jabs fly right over the kids’ heads, along with references to “Grey Gardens” and Dorothy Parker. “Don’t you guys read Variety?” GUP asks when they don’t catch the import of his Golden Globe statuette and a cherished “Porgy and Bess” playbill. “No, we’re kids,” sensible Maisie replies. Later, GUP scolds Grant, “Don’t make that face, you’ll need Botox when you’re nine.” He dishes out advice via quotes from Oscar Wilde (“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”) and “Guncle Rules.” Rule number seven: “In this house we wear what we want, it doesn’t matter if it’s for boys or girls,” he says, as he shows Maisie his caftan collection and reassures her that shorts and T-shirts are a perfectly acceptable replacement for the girls’ bathing suits she loathes. When Grant announces a “loothe tooth,” Patrick asks, “What sort of Dr. Seuss nightmare is this?” Later, he calls on “his inner fairy” to find some money for under Grant’s pillow because he never keeps cash on hand. And Patrick can’t resist a wisecrack, from “Make the yuletide gay” to “No more Mr. Nice Gay!” His new agent is Carrie Everest and that releases a mountain of puns, peaking with Heidi Himalayas and Amy Adirondacks.
When grief comes, Patrick feels the children’s pain and tells them that while it never completely goes away, there are ways to cope. They adopt a dog, have Christmas in July, and celebrate their mother’s birthday with a cake and a spontaneous dance party in the kitchen.
“The Guncle” is as saccharine and corny as a grade B tearjerker and it’s bound to become a TV sitcom, but there’s humor mixed with those tears. That silliness turns out to be just what the grieving kids needed, and they represent a second chance for the protagonist. If you’ve had enough of darkness and heavy themes, and (spoiler alert) long for a happy ending, “The Guncle” offers some real depth beneath all its frivolity and it can’t help but warm weary hearts.