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The Lightness Of 'Everything,' Better Than Bearable

square 'Everything Matters!' cover

Junior Thibodeau, the protagonist of Ron Currie Jr.'s novel Everything Matters! has a unique cross to bear. At the moment of Junior's birth, forces beyond his understanding saddle him with the terrible knowledge that he and the rest of humanity have 36 years and 168 days left until a wayward comet collides with the Earth and brings an end to life as they know it.

With the supposed Mayan apocalypse (and eponymous disaster film) 2012 looming, it would be easy to dismiss Everything Matters! as just another Armageddon story. That would be a mistake. Currie's novel is extraordinary, a lively narrative that slaloms from the exhilarating to the numinous to the achingly sad, all tied together by the author's sharp, funny voice.

That's not to say that Junior's life is a barrel of laughs. A child genius, invisible to his peers and resented by his teachers, Junior wears his intellect like armor to protect himself from companionship, leading "a life beyond touch, wherein one eschews all physical contact to minimize the pain of inevitable loss." After all, how do you communicate with others when the only thing you want to tell them comes across as "the world's biggest, strangest non sequitur"?

The boy's father, a Vietnam vet who works two jobs, is strong but silent, not one to make shows of affection; alcoholism has turned mother Debbie into a kind of zombie. And Junior's brother, Rodney, though a gifted baseball player signed to the Chicago Cubs, can't keep up mentally after a childhood cocaine addiction — enabled by inattentive parents and a drug-dealing uncle — leaves him brain-damaged. The only person Junior can relate to is Amy, his first love, who counters his standoffish pessimism with wry humor — until he risks telling her about the comet, and she, thinking he's crazy, shuts him out.

Each of these characters narrates portions of the novel, and Currie endows them with believable, compelling voices. Other sections — like the novel's vivid and funny first pages, which take place in Debbie's womb — belong to the voices that Junior hears, the ones who first clued him in to the end of the world when he was just a fetus. They narrate in a deftly sustained second-person "you," coming across like slightly vexed cosmic bureaucrats with a little bit of a soft spot for Junior in spite of themselves. Meanwhile, Currie chops the text up into numbered sections, a running countdown from 99 to impact.

Junior's peregrinations take him from nihilistic drug addiction and despair to a "Chicken Little media tour" that gets him "disappeared" to a Bulgarian gulag, then to top-secret work for a ludicrously omniscient government agency that's trying to save humanity from annihilation.

Needless to say, Currie is walking a fine line here between the portentous and the twee; he succeeds because Everything Matters! is a small miracle of tempo and tone, filled with heartfelt moments that open into satire. Throughout, Junior is haunted by the question, "Does anything I do matter?" — a dilemma that turns out to have a more ambiguous, even heartbreaking resolution than the title's cheeky exclamation point would suggest. Currie isn't offering up a blithe affirmation of life. In Everything Matters! the title holds true not in spite of the void, but because of it.

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Ben Hyman