Martha Cooley’s title for her latest novel is a predicate. A main verb and direct object, to be precise, its three words at once call to mind the subject and more, at least for the many millions with a fondness for the Beatles. The missing words “Money Can’t” function like a ghost limb for Buy Me Love⎯ and I mean for the entire narrative: haunted and hurting, yet also playful and illuminating.
Over a month that simmers with a strange tension⎯ a plot device like nothing I’ve seen before⎯ a few New Yorkers struggle for greater connection and permanence, whisked in and out of turning points as if on the R train, Cooley’s nervy choice for where to set her climax. Everyone’s hopscotching among gigs and spending much of their time with ghosts of their own, the leftovers of broken families.
A tragic theme, and yet its handling proves spritely. “Family, fiasco,” one protagonist reflects, “in the dictionary, why weren’t they listed as synonyms?” Similar wit percolates throughout the dialog, despite its many rueful touches; Cooley works without quotation marks, so that pages unfold in brief paragraphs that suggest a musical score. Indeed, the title tune could be said to drive the plot, which hinges on a winning lottery ticket.
Money and what it can buy dumbfounds Ellen Portinari, the lucky purchaser. A menopausal lapsed poet, childless and wounded by an absent father, she’d like to somehow help her even-more-damaged brother⎯ but her good news leaves her flummoxed. She knows the ticket’s expiration date, but at first she can do nothing about it, instead starting to keep company with another part-timer, her fellow gym rat Roy. This man too is playing Pick-Up-Stix with what’s left of his family, and the relationship involves his troubled half-nephew; their three-way conversations come alive with counterpoint.
It’s all counterpoint, with fathers and brothers chiming in and falling mute⎯ and then there are the barbaric yawps out of Ellen’s foil. This is the pansexual Blair, a toughneck street artist who’s come to believe, through bitter experience, that the best work must be “absurd” and “interventionist.” Every project must break the rules and raise a threat. Blair puts a jagged edge on Buy Me Love, nudging it towards fresh proof of how small wins may be easier to live with than the jackpot.
Buy Me Love
by Martha Cooley
Red Hen Press; 256 p.
John Domini’s memoir, The Archaeology of a Good Ragù, appeared this spring.