Andy Carter fled his native Omaha when his marriage fell apart, but not before he humiliated himself by ruining his brother-in-law’s wedding reception (becoming the subject of a viral video in the process), and lost his job with an insurance company when he suffered an emotional meltdown. Living in a fourth-floor walk-up in New York City, Andy has been adopted by a straw cat named Jasper who eats cereal and presents him with dead mice. Working as a bartender, Andy is drinking too much to numb the pain of having been left by his ex-wife, Karen, for the handsome paramedic who moved in down the street.
It seems that things couldn’t get any worse. Until they do. Andy’s mother, Nancy, asks him to come home to say good-bye to his dying grandfather. When he arrives in Omaha, he finds that much remains the same, but also confronts major changes. His ex-wife is living with the paramedic in their former home, and his mother’s career as a right-wing talk-radio-host is taking off thanks, in part, to her recent startling makeover, but her hostility toward marriage equality has made his parents’ home the target of vandalism comprised of copious amounts of glitter, Ken dolls, and blow-up dolls.
And then after visiting his grandfather in a hospice facility, Andy encounters Daisy, a mysterious young woman with fifteen tattoos, no job, and plenty of attitude who claims she will help Andy learn to be happy again.
Matthew Norman’s second novel is a worthy follow-up to his debut, Domestic Violets. From the first page, as Andy describes the final unraveling of his marriage in an Applebee’s restaurant where the waiter wears an “Ask Me about Bacon Time!” button on his apron and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham! plays in the background, Norman invests his readers in Andy’s tragi-comic circumstances. After all, Andy is a short insurance salesman from middle America who was happily married and thought his life was predictably on course. Until suddenly it wasn’t. Since that fateful night at Applebee’s, Andy has been floundering in New York City as the third best bartender in his boss’ employ. And Andy doesn’t really want to go home again. He’d rather continue to hide. But his mother won’t hear of it. She insists that he must see his grandfather one last time. Because he loves his grandfather — and his mother has already arranged his travel — Andy capitulates.
Andy’s father, a retired accountant, has taken to riding a motorcycle that is identical to the one he owned as a young man. Except that now he rides it through the posh gated community to which his parents have moved that is patrolled by an overly zealous would-be security officer named Don Johnson. His mother is virtually unrecognizable and actually practices being interviewed in hopes that Fox News will offer her a contract and a platform from which to predict that the U.S. Supreme Court will reject the pending bid for marriage equality. She has painstakingly recreated both Andy’s room and his older brother, Jim’s, in the new home, right down to the juvenile furniture, old posters on the wall, and the Star Wars Legos. She’s also placed a box labeled “Andy and Karen” in the closet full of photos and memories that Andy really shouldn’t relive, lest he decided to drive his grandfather’s vintage Cadillac to his old residence to spy on Karen and her new love.
Andy’s college roommate, best friend, and ex-brother-in-law, Neal, who operates a pizza parlor, is still furious with Andy for ruining his wedding reception and crashing his pick up truck, as is Neal and Karen’s father. After all, Andy punched him at the wedding reception.
“After the age of about . . . what, sixteen? We’re all damaged. Every single beautiful, stupid, precious one of us. Damaged, damaged, damaged.”
In the midst of chaos, Daisy mysteriously appears, providing Andy an explanation for her presence that he knows cannot be true. Still, he finds her fascinating, in no small measure because she announces that she is making Andy her project. She encourages him and bolsters his self-confidence, insisting, for instance, that he never again be a sidekick after she learns of the successive Halloweens when he and Jim dressed as Batman and Robin, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, etc. Daisy deftly describes Andy’s own heartbreak and eventually he learns that it mirrors her own. Still, as intriguing as she is, there remains something troubling about her and her presence in his grandfather’s life that keeps both Andy and readers guessing, and propels the story forward to a shocking climax.
A group of gay activists who call themselves the”Glitter Mafia” and threaten Andy’s family if his mother refuses to cease her conservative rhetoric are, in equal parts, hilarious and disturbing. Strewing glitter and Ken dolls in his parent’s front yard, they announce the lengths to which they will go if Andy’s mother refuses to tone down her opposition to marriage equality. Andy wants to protect his family and ponders whether they will actually make good on their threats.
At the center of outlandish circumstances and events is Norman’s everyman, Andy. He’s essentially good-intentioned, good-hearted, and, accordingly, relatable and empathetic. He sets about making amends to those he hurt when he was unable to manage his life, usually in over-the-top, laugh-out-loud ways that keep We’re All Damaged from becoming mired in angst. Andy genuinely loved his wife and his well-ordered life, never seeing the part of Karen that was always there and eventually motivated her to leave him. Of course, knowledge gained cannot be lost again, and Andy has to choose whether to navigate the world and design a reimagined future for himself with his new understanding or continue numbing his feelings with alcohol and hiding from his life by retreating back to New York City. The result is a fast-paced, entertaining, and ultimately revelatory story about what it means to belong to a family, accepting our loved one’s flaws and quirks while remaining loyal to and forgiving them. In We’re All Damaged Norman delivers truth about how flawed we all are, but does so with wit and humor through the eyes and adventures of Andy, a protagonist readers will find themselves cheering for.