Curbside Splendor ($14.95)
by Courtney Becks
Halle Butler’s Jillian is, frankly, frightening—partly because it’s a bleak look into the heart of Megan, its ostensible protagonist whose last name is never revealed. In her early twenties, Megan is right out of comedian Louis CK’s “Do Your Job” bit. She despises her job in a Chicago gastroenterology office, which her primary doctor pointed her toward as a way to deal with her “migraines and minor panic attacks.” Her boyfriend Randy and his friends seem to be finding success in their respective work lives, and Megan metabolizes her envy into mean-spirited assholery. Instead of looking for another job, though, Megan fixates on her co-worker Jillian.
Butler’s title character is a thirty-five-year-old woman who can’t adequately care for herself, her genuinely creepy daycare-aged son, or their new rescue dog. Megan’s got Jillian’s number, realizing the other woman is lying about being in a car accident to score a codeine prescription from their boss. Randy, who works at home, seems oblivious to the way a dysfunctional co-worker can sap one’s life force, telling his girlfriend: “I don’t understand why you care.”
Jillian may be grotesque and disturbing, but Megan is loathsome, although the reader feels bad for hating Butler’s mentally ill protagonist—especially since she realizes she needs “someone to help her.” One of the most satisfying moments of the book is when Amanda, one of Randy’s few friends who want anything to do with Megan, speechifies on her at a party:
You’re just a normal person who hates her job . . . Stop being so overly self-involved . . .
There’s no one on this planet . . . who I like enough to stand around and soak up this selfish, whiny-baby bullshit from. . . . You are unbelievably draining, you self-serving, shallow, talentless waste of time.
Perhaps Megan can’t look away from Jillian because she fears that she will end up like her deranged officemate. Butler juxtaposes the co-workers’ lives to great effect, exposing their similarities. After a scene detailing Jillian’s disastrous efforts to help with a 1980s party at her church one Saturday, in the subsequent section, Butler writes: “Saturday was no breeze for Megan, either.”
It’s easy to recognize one’s own shadow self in Jillian’s “concocting . . . parallel worlds in which the lies aren’t lies” or the corrosive effects of Megan’s habit of “insult[ing] the object” of her envy. This recognition, above all else, is what makes Butler’s debut novel a worthy, if truly frightening, novel for our times.