Darren Franich
March 10, 2015 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Know Your Beholder

Current Status
In Season
Adam Rapp
Little, Brown and Company

We gave it an A-

Arthur Miller set Death of a Salesman largely within Willy Loman’s house, a mortgage money pit filled with broken dreams. Decades of high school English essays have argued that the house symbolizes Willy’s tormented head—psychic architecture that Miller originally imagined as explicit set design, with a massive Face of Willy opening on stage. Playwright Adam Rapp splits the difference in Know Your Beholder, his new novel about an agoraphobic landlord trapped inside his childhood home and his own sorrowful head. Now is the winter of Francis Falbo’s discontent: His mother is dead. His father has remarried in faraway Florida. His wife has run off with another, better man. Francis calls himself “the human equivalent of a cold rainy day,” and then calls himself “a brown puddle in the middle of a dead-end street, with maybe a Popsicle stick or two floating in my dank, dog-slobbered water.”

The house Francis grew up in—a Queen Anne Victorian rendered with SimCity precision—has been converted into apartments, giving Francis a supporting cast of characters and a TV season’s worth of intrigue. There’s the family of circus performers whose daughter just went missing, the art student constructing a history of black America via nude portraits, the happy-go-lucky widower playing Willy Loman at the community playhouse. It could be indie-movie quirk, but as a narrator Francis is a bleakly funny original: a man sarcastically narrating his own postapocalypse. The book suffers from occasional whimsy overload—did I mention the widower playing Willy Loman?—but Rapp is incapable of writing a boring sentence. And as Francis struggles, Know Your Beholder starts to feel like one of Walker Percy’s questing, rueful character studies: Love in the Ruins, except here, love is the ruins. A–


“I haven’t left my house in almost a month. It’s either Tuesday or Wednesday—most likely Wednesday—and three days ago a foot of snow fell on Pollard, Illinois, and its surrounding farmlands: storybook snow as soft as sifted cake mix.”

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