Typically, guys don’t enjoy love stories, not without some female prodding. But “Going Together” is not your normal romance novel.
To the basic relationship-story formula — man and woman meet, fall in love and get married — Arnold Grossman adds heaps of very edgy, very dark humor. It’s hilarious, at least for those who can laugh at tragedy.
Paul and Helen meet in the Los Angeles subway system. A train is coming. Each seems to entertain the idea of jumping in front of it, perching close to the edge of the platform. Each also seems to notice that the other might jump.
The vehicle stops and the doors open. Neither gets on. It pulls away. After a very awkward conversation — during which Paul alleges that Helen thought about jumping, suggesting she “work on [her] commitment” — the two part ways. Giving up on the subway idea, Paul decides he’ll kill himself by eating junk food and learning to smoke instead.
In a ridiculous coincidence, the two meet again just hours later at the Santa Monica Pier. Ever smooth with the ladies, Paul asks Helen if she came for the sunset, and when she answers in the negative, accidentally knocks over a fisherman’s pail. A catch flops out, Paul can’t grab a hold of it, and it ends up speared to Helen’s high heel.
To make matters worse, Paul decides to work the suicide gambit again:
“He traced an arc with two fingers, upward and down. ‘Splash.’
“‘Oh, I see. Now you think I’m planning to jump off the end of the pier.’”
She assures him she’s not. “Do you have any idea how filthy that water is?”
And so unfolds one of the weirdest fictional relationships ever depicted. Paul is single and divorced from a witch of a woman, and Helen is widowed.
From there readers discover more quirks and more characters. Helen runs a Beverly Hills salon called “Helen of Troy” and uses Jane Austin-esque phrases like “pray tell,” and Paul writes Los Angeles Times advice columns for men (“Man to Man”) despite the mess he’s made of his own life.
(He got the job after breaking up with a girlfriend, getting drunk in the Times offices and writing a tortured letter to himself at 2 a.m. At the time he was a lifestyle features writer. “The next morning, a curious editor looking for an overdue assignment logged onto Paul’s computer and found the letter. He took it to be a sample of a column Paul wished to write. So impressed was the editor with Paul’s letter that he asked him to write three more.”)
Helen’s business partner and best friend, Harvey, is heterosexual, but he pretends otherwise for the benefit of his professional reputation. Paul’s mother is severely senile — a situation that’s genuinely touching until readers learn that she once wrote a novel in which a woman had 26 affairs. Each man’s name corresponded to a different letter of the alphabet. She keeps confusing Paul with them. Randall, Peter, Oscar, Hugh, Max.
“Going Together” is packed to the brim with the most out-there date ideas, the wittiest dialogue and Mr. Grossman’s wonderful prose style. Paul and Helen take a helicopter tour of the city (led by Malcolm, a going-blind pilot who moonlights running charter boats) and run up and down the largest set of stairs in L.A.
The best conversations are too long or too inappropriate to print, and the humor depends heavily on context. But here’s a debate Paul plays out in his own head while heading out to meet Helen — it shows Mr. Grossman’s ability to capture Paul’s meandering thoughts and clumsy personality:
“[H]e had decided and undecided on flowers at least a dozen times. Arguing with himself, he cited presumptuousness, outdatedness, nerdishness, nebbishness, and loserness in the case against them. The pro side of the argument favored appropriateness, traditionalness, solidness, and unpredictableness. By the time he parked his car, No Flowers led Flowers five to four. Walking through the parking lot, he thought of friendliness, which tied the score, so he flipped a quarter, which he dropped and chased as it rolled on edge across the blacktop, a scene a delivery driver found amusing. The driver stepped on the coin for Paul, looked down at it, and declared, ‘It’s heads.’”
Though Mr. Grossman has a history of lobbying for gun control, “Going Together” has no political axe to grind, making it a bit of a shame that the book’s promoters have gone out of their way to discourage conservatives from reading it. The biography his publisher gave Amazon.com plays up his creation of SAFE Colorado, an anti-gun group that capitalized on the Columbine massacre.
The main characters fixate on the more outlandish suicide methods, and the few scenes with firearms don’t really adhere to any particular philosophy. The book is simply for amusement’s sake, and that’s probably a more worthwhile goal than misleading the public about “gun show loopholes” anyway.
But this tale certainly is not for everyone — at heart it’s a meditation on the question “What’s so funny about suicide?” that, a little disturbingly, finds a lot of answers. Those touched by the phenomenon won’t appreciate Mr. Grossman’s lighthearted take on it. (If anyone ever makes a movie of the story, the ensuing controversy could create a nice publicity boost, though.)
It also promulgates the notion that the best thing unstable people can do is date each other, that they can “save” themselves as “soul mates.” This love-as-therapy formulation makes for great songs but bad advice — and fiction that sacrifices believability when such relationships go as well as Helen and Paul’s does.
“Going Together” is one of the funniest books in recent memory, though.