- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2010

By Matthew Sharpe
Bloomsbury, $14 181 pages

”At twenty-six, Karl Floor had had a hard life: father dead, mother dead, stepdad sick and

mean, siblings none, friends none, foes so offhanded in their molestations that they did not make a crisp enough focus for his energies.”

That single sentence, with which Matthew Sharpe opens “You Were Wrong,” his fifth novel, tells us two things: that Karl’s last name is symbolic and (in case we didn’t already know it) that Mr. Sharpe can write.

Two sentences later, we are told more about Karl’s sad state in life. “He wasn’t born wan and slow, but misfortune had made him so, and so he felt he would remain till death.” Not bad enough? Here’s more. “Death: it cast a faraway light of exaltation over the future, as the prospect of a shining city on a hill gives comfort to pilgrims enduring a rough sea voyage, but he could not, as the pilgrims could not, get there any faster. He simply had to withstand storms and hills and lulls, eat spoiled food, fall ill for months, never fully recover, and put up a sail at the first sign of wind.”

Would you believe that is just what, over the course of this sprightly and entertaining novel, Karl does? Well, it’s true, mostly.

Karl, a dispirited and undoubtedly uninspiring high school math teacher is walking home (in Seacrest, Long Island, circa 2008) when two of his senior trigonometry students appear and turn him into a human punching bag. They leave, and Karl, now looking beat up along with his usual beaten-down, arrives at the house he shares with his widowed stepfather, and finds an attractive young woman.

Being the longtime pessimist he is, Karl asks whether she is robbing him, and they embark on a clever dialogue by which means she finds out a great deal about Karl - and his stepfather - but reveals little about herself. Clueless Karl continues to believe that the girl, to whom he is mightily attracted, is a thief, but the reader isn’t convinced. For one thing, she’s unusually kind for a thief. She insists on cleaning off most of the evidence of the recent beating, and then she takes him to a party.

From there, things really spiral out of control for Karl, the girl and eventually Karl’s stepfather (whom Karl almost kills in one wildly surrealistic scene). The plot and the action become decidedly madcap, but in a more meaningful way, as Kurt Vonnegut, not Monty Python, would do it.

The interplay between Karl and the girl, Sylvia Vetch by name, is great fun, but that between Karl and his stepfather, Larchmont Jones, is great theater. (What a movie this would make, especially with someone like Gene Hackman or John Malkovich as Jones and, say, Tobey Maguire back in street clothes as Karl.)

Just when you think a character has left the scene for good, backup he or she pops, Whac-A-Mole-like. Is Sylvia gone? Nope. Is Larchmont dead? Double nope. So instead of slipping off the ship that’s headed for the city on the hill, Karl Floor hangs on, and in the process learns a great deal about life, love and himself. For starters, he learns that he and Sylvia love each other but are almost related. Larchmont Jones, who was married to Karl’s late mother, is Sylvia’s father; her mother is a black woman with whom Jones has had a double life for decades.

Even though she loves Karl, Sylvia marries the rich young man by whom she is pregnant. If this isn’t bad enough, they ask Karl to be one of their witnesses. In most novels, this would be improbable. In the fictional world of Mr. Sharpe, it is just what one would expect. After the ceremony, Karl and Stony, the groom, have the following exchange.

“[Karl to Stony:] I dislike you. You’re demented. I love the woman you just married and she loves me and she doesn’t love you. You coerced her.”

“She doesn’t love you. You’re effectively a child, not even a promising child with an interesting hobby like cello playing. You possess no innate talent or virtue or forcefulness.”

“She may not love me but she likes me. She doesn’t like you.”

“She may not like me but she loves me.”

“She doesn’t love you, she despises you.”

Whereupon, after a few more lines I can’t quote here, they fight.

Matthew Sharpe is very good. He grabs your interest, he makes you laugh and then, which is much harder, he makes you think. One critic called “Jamestown,” Mr. Sharpe’s fourth novel (in which a cataclysmic event necessitates moving Manhattan to coastal Virginia) “moving and funny and deeply provocative.” That would also serve nicely as a blurb for “You Were Wrong.”

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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