- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2001

By Douglas Coupland
Bloomsbury, $24.95, 279 pages

Many people would agree that getting together with their extended family can be a wild experience. They may have grandparents who are mega-religious, parents who are overbearing and siblings who are uber-entrepreneurial. And when all of these various idiosyncrasies merge at holidays or other special occasions, a few loco clashes are bound to erupt.
But nothing can be as crazy, or as much fun, as when the Drummond family in Douglas Coupland's latest novel "All Families are Psychotic" gets together on the Space Coast of Florida to see the clan's most normal member, astronaut Sarah, lift off into space.
This is a family drama with somewhat conventional tensions between members, especially father and son. But to add suspense to his theme, Mr. Coupland spins a plot driven forward by shootings, kidnappings and infidelity. He adds a pinch of philosophy here and there and sets the story in present-day prefab Florida. The end result is a suspenseful family/gangster tale that questions such fundamental issues as marriage, the modern economic system and the alienation between generations, and it never fails to amaze and entertain the reader.
The main character is Sarah's mother, Janet. She is retired and lives in Canada, where she raised her family. She has all the traits of the Great Depression generation and stays at a cheap motel during her Florida visit, instead of splurging in honor of her daughter's great moment. However, this in many ways conventional woman has AIDS, which she acquired in the strangest of ways: A blood-covered bullet, launched from her ex-husband Ted's gun, went into her body after penetrating her no-good, HIV-infected son Wade.
And if you think that's wild, it's just the beginning.
Bryan, Janet's younger son, is dating Shw (the characters are just as perplexed with this impossible name as the reader), a 19-year-old globalization protester, who's pregnant and has decided against Bryan's will to sell the child she's carrying. Another baby on the way is that of Wade and his born-again Christian wife, Beth. But Wade, who has never held a steady job, is broke and while waiting for Sarah's space shuttle to take off and for the baby to be born gets involved with a gangster mob. His first bad-guy rendezvous is, naturally, at the most artificial of all settings, Disney World.
Wade's dangerous assignment is to deliver a letter to another gangster. He involves his entire family in his schemes, and before you know it, Janet has become the ringleader. And due to the Drummond men's incompetence, the sacred letter has gone off with Shw, who is waiting out her pregnancy at the house of a Florida couple that intends to adopt her child. The Drummonds find her and soon realize that all is not well with the couple ready to pay thousands of dollars for the baby. The Drummonds find handcuffs and other items used for bondage as well as cages in the couple's basement.
In the meantime, a German-Bahamian gangster, Florian, who has made billions of dollars on the development of pharmaceuticals, expresses interest in the letter. He's a dangerous man, but Janet agrees to meet with him. What follows is one of the book's funniest and most absurd dialogues which is saying a lot. The two meet at a Daytona diner, where their standoff turns into an intellectual, sweet and warm discussion.
Florian talks about the fact that a wide range of industries, such as the insurance and banking systems, are financially dependent on long-term, chronic illnesses such as cancer. Obesity, for example, is a part of the economic engine; everyone from farmers to doctors benefits from the ill health of fatsos. "Fatness ripples through the entire economy in a tsunami of prosperity," writes Mr. Coupland. Florian's current investments are focused on cloning.
The conversation also touches on Janet's disgust with her own generation. People 65 and older are so resigned and uninterested in life. But having AIDS has forced her to reach out to people she otherwise wouldn't know. She surfs the Internet often and admits that one of her aliases is HotAsian Teen. Then the pair turn to the topic of sea salt. Florian and Janet both love salt and think American food could use more of it. Florian offers to send Janet his favorite, Maltese sea salt, and Janet responds that she's heard Martha Stewart mention it on TV. Angrily, Florian blurts out, "Oh, why must that woman popularize everything?"
Mr. Coupland is a master of the bizarre. In "All Families are Psychotic" he weaves a suspenseful tale, limning it with violence, philosophy and humor. The characters sometimes appear even more complex than people in real life; and how nice that is when the opposite is so often true for modern literature and film. These characters never become caricatures because they are too complicated and unpredictable.
The dialogue is witty and eloquent, and Mr. Coupland's description of Florida's manufactured landscape rings sadly true. His contemplative wanderings such as, "The dull day is a triumph of the human spirit, and boredom is a luxury unprecedented in the history of our species," are thought-provoking and fit remarkably well into the drama. The line quoted above, for example, is inserted into a scene in which Janet and Nickie, Ted's new wife, survive a shootout at a diner.
The novel is a roller-coaster ride with humorous twists and violent turns, exhilarating highs and ominous lows. Mr. Coupland raises the bar for everyone, reader and writer alike. He grabs your attention as a leach holds onto your skin and doesn't let go until your energy and imagination are sucked dry.

Gabriella Boston is a reporter on the features desk of The Washington Times.

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