In reading Scott Nadelson’s new novel of linked stories, Between You and Me, I had the sensation of being let in on a secret. The very title suggests a confession, or an intimate insight shared between trusted confidantes. In the first story, “Girl Made of Metal,” Nadelson positions the reader squarely in the point of view of Paul Haberman, a forty-something attorney who has spent his life in Manhattan, only to find himself starting anew in New Jersey, and more particularly in the driver’s seat of a Chrysler Imperial, in the parking lot of the Rockaway Mall, and even more particularly than that, in the company Joy and Kyle, described as “his wife’s two children.” In the eleven stories and four vignettes spaced over the twenty years to follow, each with this family intact, Paul never does come to think of the kids as his own, or even as his stepchildren, but rather as his wife’s children. And they call him Paul.
The naming conventions do not suggest a lack of intimacy, but rather the painfully self-conscious way in which Paul approaches the world, rendered most electrically in that first story, in which Paul takes the kids to see The Muppet Movie, only to wind up in a wildly tense standoff over a parking space in the crowded, rain-soaked mall parking lot. His adversary: a skinny teen in an Iron Maiden T-shirt who gets out of his car and dares Paul to fight. Paul considers his options, or, more to the point, the potential consequences of his actions: “If he backed the car away, as he wanted to, wouldn’t that teach [Joy and Kyle] meekness, that the aggressor always wins? If he got out of the car and shouted the kid down … or pummeled him … they’d turn into loud, thoughtless brutes.”
So begins Paul’s journey into surrogate fatherhood, which only grows more complicated as the kids grow into tempestuous teenagers themselves, as their birth father makes irregular appearances during which his greatest consistency is never picking up the tab for anything of substance. And while Paul is often hapless, often a punching bag, the novel settles into its sweetest moments when there are reprieves. When, drunk at her Sweet Sixteen Party, Joy moshes into Paul—knocking him all the way to the floor, only to slur, “You know what I always dug about you? … You’re game for whatever.” In pitch perfect form, Paul is “mostly sure she has mistaken him for someone else.” Alternatively, there is the point at which Kyle, on the heels of his largely directionless teenage years, turns his life around and gets accepted to medical school at Johns Hopkins. Paul spends a week drafting and redrafting a letter, struggling over the correct tenor between false assurance that he knew the boy would succeed all along, or a more earnest confession that he never did suspect the boy would make something of himself—and that he’s all the prouder because of that doubt. All of these conflicted sensations amount to a terse “Big congrats, pal” and a two-hundred-fifty dollar check to help Kyle with moving expenses.
Nadelson resists the temptation to define Paul solely by his step-parenthood, as the character progresses to other scenarios reflective of his stages of life. On a business trip to Zurich in “Old What’s His Name,” there’s the tease of an affair with a woman traveling a similar route who’s disillusioned with her boss and her career in ways we are left to assume Paul must be, too. Later, in “A Complete Unknown,” Paul moves his mother into an assisted living facility only to discover that she is not moving away from everything familiar as Paul suspected, but rather into the company of an old lover Paul had never known about—or at least never understood as a kid. Mom will be just fine, while it’s Paul who will be left to adjust to shifting landscape around him—that his mother’s mortality implies his own, and his own marriage may not be immune to the failings of his parents’.
In the title story, “Between You and Me,” Paul nears retirement, and a young supervisor, Kat, who insists he learn to use the office’s new computer systems, overwhelms him on a daily basis. Paul seeks guidance from the new rabbi at his synagogue with whom he’s fallen into a rhythm of half-hearted weekend workouts and big lunches that quickly undo the health benefits of their exercise. A good friend, and deceptively insightful advisor, the rabbi re-centers their conversations about Paul’s work frustrations—that it isn’t about unreasonable demands on Paul the professional, but rather that Paull has done his job “for twenty-five years, and suddenly this woman comes along with skills you don’t have, flaunting her perfect legs and her youth and her power … and you don’t know whether you want to slap her or shtup her.” It’s a conversation that can only happen between confidantes, and one that the rabbi finishes with the simple absolution—the exact words Paul needs to hear—“There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Between You and Me is a tour-de-force of storytelling, weaving short stories and vignettes into a seamless, cohesive whole that explores contemporary masculinity and aging in earnest, unapologetic, funny, and often-as-not heartbreaking fashion. It’s compulsively readable, quietly ambitious in scope, and a joy to consume.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is an alum of the Oregon State University MFA program in creative writing. He won the 2014 Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction from the University of New Orleans and has previously published or has work forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, the Prairie Schooner blog, Word Riot, and Gravel. He is a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.