You have to give Jessica Anthony credit: in this current climate of MFA-educated clones it’s unusual to come across a truly unique narrator. We’ve all read plenty of Holden Caulfield rip-offs, or various takes on the Kerouac drifter-philosopher, the William Burroughs educated-junky, or the Paul Bowles traveller-adventurer. There haven’t been too many Hungarian meat-selling dwarves who live in an abandoned bus in a Pennsylvanian field, though.
In case that makes Anthony’s The Convalescent sound like a freakish novelty, we should point out that she’s an outstanding young talent, and was the inaugural winner of the Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award in 2004. While there will undoubtedly be plenty of copies of her debut novel sold on the basis of its eccentric subject matter, it has far more going for it than simply cheap laughs and a handful of meat anecdotes. There are echoes of Grass and Gogol in its embracing of the ridiculous and the sublime in equal measure, and you can’t help feeling that Jessica Anthony must have lived in Eastern Europe in a previous life.
The convalescent of the title is Rovar Pfleigman, a mute dwarf descended from a peculiar line of Hungarian misfits and failures. Interspersed with his story is an imagined history of the Pfleigmans, stretching back centuries to the particularly dark ages of expansion and conflict in Europe. Rovar’s ancestors aren’t the heroes, though: they’re the outcasts, the unclean minority who live on the fringe of the new settlements, surviving on scraps and eking out the most sorry, meagre existence imaginable. As is befitting of their low status, they also perform that most disgusting of tasks: the cutting up of meat.
Rovar has more specific problems on his plate, though. The land that his bus-home stands on is being claimed by a developer, who seems determined to eject their eccentric squatter, by force if necessary. Meanwhile his host of physical illnesses and deformities, which include a disturbing tendency for his skin to peel off in long strips, mean that he’s become a figure of ridicule and disgust in the nearby town. Local paediatrician Dr. Monica takes an unlikely interest in his condition, providing Rovar with a friend and supporter, as well as an unpleasantly graphic crush, but there’s clearly something going on that extends beyond the purely physical. Given the peculiar nature of his existence there will be no easy solutions to Rovar’s problems.
The Convalescent does suffer slightly from a few narrative holes, as Anthony struggles to develop a story around her unique, deformed hero. The subplot surrounding the land developer is never fully resolved, and while the Kafkaesque conclusion to the novel makes thematic sense it’s unlikely to satisfy the majority of readers. Explanations are few, and you may put the book down wondering quite what it was all about.
Where it succeeds, though, is in its narrative voice, and it’s this that pulls The Convalescent out of every sticky situation with our interest intact. Rovar Pfleigman is one of the most amusing and poignant anti-heroes since Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and his constant railing against a world that has cast him and his kind aside for generations manages to encompass both the ridiculous and the curiously touching. He’s a true character in every sense of the word, pulling the novel’s narrative along behind him like Oskar Matzerath’s battered old drum.
It’s possible to pick holes in The Convalescent’s final act, but for a debut novel it’s still a remarkable act of creation. By the time you come to leave Anthony’s curiously warped world of grumpy mute dwarves, medieval giants and packaged meat, you’ll find yourself wishing that real life was actually this vibrant and colourful. And when you find yourself being envious of a Hungarian dwarf with a rare skin condition, you know that the author has pulled off a very remarkable feat indeed.