Book Reviews · 06/18/2012

Fame & Madness in America by Garrett Socol


Casperian Books, 2012

Told in sequential first-person interview-style narrative, a colourful cast of characters reveals the tale of New Yorker Shawn Regal’s murder by horse tranquilizer four days after his marriage to the murderess, Brenda Bernstein. Brenda admits on page one—in fact, sentence one—that she killed him. The whole truth of the matter won’t reveal itself until much later in the novel, but in the meantime, the reader is treated to a flurry of media excitement and shocking bursts of temporary fame for anyone even distantly related to Brenda or the deceased. At times the social commentary is wildly depressing—spotlighting American culture and its love of ephemeral fame-for-fame’s sake—while at the same time, the novel is a fast, fun read. It’s easy to think that Fame & Madness is entirely satirical and light-hearted. But hours or days after reading the last page, it’s clear that there is much more “message” delivered by this little novel than it first seemed set to deliver.

Case in point, from early in the novel, in Brenda’s sister Fern’s point of view:


Then the public determined who deserved their attention. Those they liked would appear in print and on nightly news programs again and again while those they detested would vanish from sight. The process was truly astonishing. Were people this starved for entertainment?

Brenda goes to jail immediately. She was the only dining companion with Shawn Regal when he was poisoned. The press gets hold of her motive: her new husband disappeared for half-an-hour during the wedding reception for a quick tryst with his stunning Icelandic ex-girlfriend. Women everywhere applaud Brenda. Other than a “nut-case” who claims to have committed the murder, there are no other suspects, and the applauding fans outside the jail are supporting a tough cause. Brenda’s self-centred mother-in-law Isabel intends to destroy her widowed daughter-in-law on the witness stand.

Isabel never liked Brenda in the first place. Also, the more attention Isabel draws, the more likely it is that she’ll land a talk-show of her own. Shawn’s good looking brother Byron already has and is now hosting “Mating After Murder,” a dating game for siblings of victims. Meanwhile, Brenda’s best friend Veronica has landed Byron—a relationship launched during the funeral, and destined not to last much longer than anyone’s nearly nonexistent grief. She’s auditioning for Hollywood too.

Shawn’s best friend Dash, however, seems not to care for publicity. He sees Shawn Regal’s death as a more personal stroke of luck in that he is not-so-secretly in love with Brenda. When he learns that Shawn’s mother plans to destroy Brenda in court, Dash tries to scare Isabel away and ends up in jail for murder himself. Poor Dash thought he’d be magnanimously waiting for Brenda’s release, and now he’s in jail, hoping she’ll get out and wait for him. Like every other relationship in this novel, it’s pretty obvious that this one, too, is doomed.

“You think of me as a brother figure,” he said with disappointment.

“I don’t think of you as brother figure, Dash,” I explained. “I think of you as a friend-of-my-former -husband figure. I like you. But the kind of friendship we have does not include physical contact. Even if I happen to need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, please find someone else to do it.”

“I get it,” he said. “You need time. And space.”

“Lots of time,” I responded. “Miles of space.”

That’s how this story unfolds, one farcical misstep after another, some looking forward, and others looking back at family secrets from the past… that might or might not have any bearing on the upcoming trial. We learn that Brenda was actually the only daughter in a large Polish immigrant family of professional pole vaulters, adopted at birth. Evidently, she may possess a murderous gene and therefore shouldn’t be held accountable for her actions. Reconnection with the birth family shifts the story to a strange side-track, including a blooming love affair between Brenda’s Polish birth father and the mother she’s always known. Both of these characters, like nearly everyone in the novel, enjoys much media hype surrounding their actions. And the reader, (this one in particular), enjoys some fabulous tears-streaming-down-face-in-a-public-place laughter. Shoulders shaking, gasping for breath, concerned onlookers discreetly gauging the situation on my side of the doctor’s waiting room where I was trying to read quietly. Any writing that triggers fits of uncontrollable idiotic laughter like that gets my thumbs up. The Polish pole vaulters, for whatever reason, tipped me over the edge.

Ultimately, the novel takes a serious turn when Brenda’s true motive for the murder is revealed. Once revealed, Brenda becomes a true hero for the reader, but the announcement of the reason is so unexpected, it reads as unlikely. Plus, Socol has already established all of Brenda’s applauding fans outside the prison as moronic band-wagon groupies, and it’s an uncomfortable role to step into as reader—aligning oneself with the very first set of “crazies” introduced in the novel.

Still, the story does indeed hold together. For fan’s of Garrett Socol’s other work—such as “Talk Soup” and “The Gossip Show,” among other E! Entertainment Television series, this novel will not disappoint.

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Garrett Socol’s short stories have been published in more than 40 literary journals including The Barcelona Review, The Dublin Quarterly, 3:AM Magazine, Word Riot, Underground Voices, Drunken Boat, and McSweeney’s He is also the author of a short story collection, Gathered Here Together, (Ampersand Books, 2011) .

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Nancy Freund is an American-British novelist and poet with a B.A. in English/Creative Writing and an M.Ed. from UCLA. In addition to writing and teaching, she’s been in editing, publishing, book marketing and publicity. Involved with the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival, London’s Women in Publishing and the Geneva Writers’ Group, she currently lives in Switzerland.