Ron Currie Jr. writes fiction that a Hollywood executive might call high-concept. His first book, God Is Dead (2007), imagines life on earth after God has taken human form—in Darfur, no less—and died. His second novel, Everything Matters!, tells the story of a young man called Junior, born in Maine in 1974, who is informed at birth by a voice in his head that the world will end roughly six months after his thirty-sixth birthday. Everything Matters! is largely free of sci-fi trappings and dwells frequently on familiar human dilemmas, but its “What if?”–style premise keeps the story moving. The reader roots for Junior to get his act together and win back his girlfriend, while also wondering whether he’s going to save the planet from its imminent, comet-delivered doom.
In case earth’s impending destruction is an inadequate narrative hook, the novel also features subplots that involve the bombing of a federal building in Chicago, a possible cure for cancer, and the arrest of Junior’s girlfriend, Amy, on suspicion of terrorist activities. Currie, as is probably clear, does not traffic in delicate story lines or subtle effects. Junior’s brother, Rodney, is not only a professional baseball player but one of the greatest contact hitters who has ever lived, with a swing blessed by Ted Williams. John, their taciturn father, lost two fingers in Vietnam to a crazed, knife-wielding prostitute after the single adulterous act of his ultradignified working-class life.
But if Currie draws his characters broadly, he nonetheless draws them well. He adopts several of their voices for alternating chapters, creating a cast of believable and engaging narrators. The best of these is the wry and skeptical Amy, the love of Junior’s life. She and Junior meet on her first day in his elementary school, which happens to be the day the Challenger space shuttle exploded. (Junior’s teacher, of course, narrowly lost a spot on the shuttle to Christa McAuliffe.) Just before the explosion, a twelve-year-old Junior calls the Challenger a “public relations gimmick,” to which Amy replies, “You’re a special one, aren’t you?”
She has no idea how special he really is—not yet. Eventually, though, she learns about the voice in Junior’s head. That voice narrates roughly a third of the chapters, each told in the second-person omniscient (really omniscient) and addressed to Junior. (The book opens, amusingly, with the voice speaking to Junior in the womb.) These chapters are numbered in descending order, a clever typographical eccentricity seemingly inspired by the Choose Your Own Adventure series. The ideal reader for Everything Matters! is probably not far removed from those books. Currie is at his best when writing about life up to about age fifteen, and as the book concludes, the all-knowing voice begins to spout dubious platitudes unlikely to move readers over the age of eighteen. The quasi-Zen fatalism of the ending bothered me enough, in fact, that I’d hesitate to give this novel to a bookish teenager. But if that hypothetical teen did get his hands on it, I suspect he’d have a pretty good time.
David Haglund is the managing editor of PEN America, the literary magazine published by the PEN American Center.