Vacation by Deb Olin Unferth

Vacation BY Deb Olin Unferth. McSweeney's. Hardcover, 240 pages. $22.

The cover of Vacation

Myers, the hapless, briefcase-toting nine-to-fiver of Deb Olin Unferth’s debut novel, Vacation, wonders why his wife has suddenly started coming home late from work “mussed” and “ruddy.” When he begins leaving his office at the end of each day, going to her office, and following her, he discovers that she is indeed cheating on him—albeit only emotionally. She’s been coming home late because she leaves work, goes to yet another office, and follows a strange man, who, coincidentally, is an acquaintance of Myers’s from college.

Myers’s wife, who is never named, is drawn to the “quiet, sad dignity” of the strange man, whose name is Gray. She also likes the “meandering” paths of his evening walks, “as if he’d been plopped onto this land from some foreign star.” The wife gives up her pursuit when Gray’s peripateticism (which, it turns out, has its basis not in space-alien whimsy but in a brain tumor) leads him out of New York City and, after a detour through his old college town, down to Central America. Myers, however, keeps after Gray, eventually walking out of his own life and into the hot Managua night.

Meanwhile, a young woman whose soap-star mother died when she was a child is on her way to Chicago to view her mom’s papers. While in town, she learns the identity of her biological father. At the same time, an antisocial Mexican, who steals dolphins from aquariums and returns them to the wild, relates his own history. More voices chime in. A minor earthquake damages a Nicaraguan Internet café. Hotel employees give chase to Myers after his wife reports their credit cards stolen. A dolphin is liberated amid a hurricane.

Myers’s story, the solo act that opens Vacation, is a slow start, due to the overriding concern in those pages with the way in which he and his wife argue. The third-person narrator meticulously describes the fights between Myers and his wife but deliberately resists particularizing: “They fought about round tin objects, lids, water, other liquids, other things having to do with liquid”; “They had not fought about the outlines of things.” But once Myers gets fired by e-mail, the earthquake hits, the first-person voices kick in (nine in total, including “local nun” and “sexy woman in bikini”), and the wild-dolphin chase commences, the tale hits its entertaining stride.

Myers’s narrator is revealed—gradually, but with increasing frequency—to be misanthropic, not to mention cynical about the job of storytelling. (“In truth, here is the story: A man leaves a place. A man leaves another place. And another. And another. . . . Nothing becomes clearer. Nobody changes.”) But the quirky, metafictional gloom is part of the charm of this novel and is a critical gear in the apparatus that propels it to its lonely conclusion in a far-flung corner of the earth.