BUCKY ____ DENT
By David Duchovny
296 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.
A fiction teacher once told us that we should know every detail about the characters we create, down to the kind of bath towel they prefer, even if the towel never appears in the story. That advice smacked of Stanislavsky’s “method,” wherein actors try to learn everything about a character’s background — first kiss, favorite smell — before stepping onstage. I wondered, a bit enviously, if actors who tried their hand at writing fiction would invent characters with greater depth than we mere scribblers.
I’m not sure about all actor-authors, but in “Bucky ____ Dent,” his second novel, the TV star David Duchovny so believably brings to life his slacker, pot-smoking, 30-something protagonist, Ted Fullilove, that we feel for Ted the way we feel for most slacker, pot-smoking, 30-somethings: Get a life.
The problem is that Ted thinks he has one. When we meet him he’s selling peanuts at Yankee Stadium during the 1978 baseball season. He’s a devoted follower of the Grateful Dead; he has a ponytail, a “soft belly” and “man breasts” (due, we’re told, to hormonal imbalances caused by chronic pot smoking). He’s also a highly literate Ivy League graduate who reads the modernists and wants only enough money to keep his “brokedown” Bronx apartment so he can write the Great American Novel (always a dubious aspiration). But in fact, Ted’s already got several novels in progress, including the 536-page “Mr. Ne’er-Do-Well” and another that comes in at 1,171 pages and weighs over 12 pounds. So maybe “slacker” doesn’t apply to his writing, but it applies to every other part of his life, especially relationships. He had one true love, now gone; his pet is a battery-operated goldfish; his mother is dead; he hasn’t spoken to his father in half a decade. And his literary agent hates his novels. Ted’s life is ready for a shake-up.
But that will be slow to come. In a short early chapter, we follow Ted, after a game, into the changing room, where he takes off his work uniform (a cardboard box with shoulder straps made to look like a peanut bag) and dons his “life uniform” (tie-dye shirt, bluejeans and sandals). In terms of dramatic action, that’s pretty much all that happens, but in terms of character background, Duchovny brings us so close to Ted we feel as though we might have caught a contact buzz.
Much of the novel’s first half moves at this pace and in this mode. (In another chapter, Ted walks from the locker room to his car in the parking lot — but, oh, what exposition fills those few pages!) The opening may well be Duchovny’s sly nod to the books Ted reads: Virginia Woolf also privileged character development over plot development to give us Clarissa Dalloway’s rich interiority. But when Ted gets a phone call from a grief counselor at Beth Israel hospital, telling him that his long-estranged father, Marty, is dying of lung cancer, both Ted and the novel pick up the pace.
From there, Duchovny finds his rhythm, balancing crisp dialogue with some truly hilarious scenes that draw on the small cast of colorful secondary characters. The real drama is between Ted and Marty. After a hospital-room reunion, where Ted is shocked to see how “skinny and gray” his father is, Ted moves back to his childhood home in Park Slope to care for the cantankerous widower whom Ted, for complicated reasons, still hotly resents. Secrets are revealed, love interests appear, diaries are discovered, joints are passed between father and son, and life’s big issues — love, sex, marriage, parenting, death, baseball — are examined.
It all has the potential for some sappy feel-good melodrama just in time for Father’s Day; but somehow, like Bucky Dent himself, Duchovny hits an unexpected home run. Marty, you see, is a Red Sox fan in the year of a legendary Red Sox collapse. As his health declines with every game the team loses that season, Ted’s creativity finds its true expression, and he gets a life by trying to bring meaning to another.
Joseph Salvatore, the books editor for The Brooklyn Rail, is the author of the story collection “To Assume a Pleasing Shape.” He teaches at the New School.
A version of this review appears in print on June 5, 2016, on page BR40 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: