One of the qualities I seek in any piece of fiction is honesty. You can lead me into any situation, any conceit, any head as long as you do so with a voice that is true and a character who is honest with him or herself. Tom Mendicino’s debut novel, Probation, has the sort of truth and honesty that comes close to universality, and we are all the richer for it.
Andy Nocero throws his marriage and sales career away on a risky blow-job with a trucker at an interstate rest stop. As a consequence of being caught, the court demands one year of therapy during his probation. He enters into therapy with reluctance, trying to cope with life out of the closet as well as his mother’s sudden illness—but his real salvation comes from an attempt to save another.
Mendicino is masterful at bringing out the heart and the pathos in the smallest of episodes, deftly daubing his canvas to complete the picture of a man who cannot yet see what he wants because he can’t forget what he had. One of the many examples is Nocero’s bookstore trick, Duffy Donlan—a chunky, lonely bear who Nocero fucks in a booth and then gives a lift home, where dead dreams and a dying mother wait for him. They share instant coffee and a moment of closeness before Nocero backs away, realizing that no matter how pitiful he believes Donlan to be, he’s not far away from it himself.
Probation is full of touching, meaningful episodes like this, but none more touching than those involving his family—his own dying mother, his already dead father and his sister, with whom he has a prickly relationship. He cannot forgive her, but he can’t help needing her, especially in the face of their mother’s illness. What brings them together again, if only for an evening? Beatles’ albums.
And, praise God, they aren’t warped after decades of hibernation in this
sweatbox of an attic. Leave it to my mother to pack them so tightly, so
expertly, that moisture and heat hasn’t destroyed them. I have a moment of
drunken insight. This is what she preserved them for. Tonight. My sister and
I argue over which record to play first. Finally we compromise and drop a
stack on the spindle … And so the night passes, nothing resolved, nothing
settled. But for a few hours, we play Rubber Soul and Revolver loud enough
to wake the dead and stay pleasantly smashed and I am the ten year old she
loved and she is eight and I can love her back and all the years of polite
estrangement still lie in the future.
Mendicino’s weaves Nocero’s emotional strands around visits with his therapist, Matt, much abused by Nocero but essential to his recovery. This relationship is the least fulfilling, but Mendicino manages to bring this to fruition by the end of the book as well. Is the ending happy? I won’t spoil it, but it is the ending I wanted to see.
Probation is a gift—as meaningful and harmonious as John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler