Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

“The most riveting look at the dark side of marriage since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?…It induced nightmares, at least in this reader. No mean feat.” —Stephen King

David Pepin has been in love with his wife, Alice, since the moment they met in a university seminar on Alfred Hitchcock. After thirteen years of marriage, he still can’t imagine a remotely happy life without her—yet he obsessively contemplates her demise. Soon she is dead, and David is both deeply distraught and the prime suspect.

The detectives investigating Alice’s suspicious death have plenty of personal experience with conjugal enigmas: Ward Hastroll is happily married until his wife inexplicably becomes voluntarily and militantly bedridden; and Sam Sheppard is especially sensitive to the intricacies of marital guilt and innocence, having decades before been convicted and then exonerated of the brutal murder of his wife.

Still, these men are in the business of figuring things out, even as Pepin’s role in Alice’s death grows ever more confounding when they link him to a highly unusual hit man called Mobius. Like the Escher drawings that inspire the computer games David designs for a living, these complex, interlocking dramas are structurally and emotionally intense, subtle, and intriguing; they brilliantly explore the warring impulses of affection and hatred, and pose a host of arresting questions. Is it possible to know anyone fully, completely? Are murder and marriage two sides of the same coin, each endlessly recycling into the other? And what, in the end, is the truth about love?

Mesmerizing, exhilarating, and profoundly moving, Mr. Peanut is a police procedural of the soul, a poignant investigation of the relentlessly mysterious human heart—and a first novel of the highest order.

Adam Ross lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and their two daughters.

Follow Ross on Twitter: @escherx

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From our Q & A with Adam Ross

Q: Was there a particular event or idea that first gave rise to Mr. Peanut?

A:  Absolutely. In 1995, my father told me the strangest, most suspicious story about my cousin, who had severe peanut allergies and was also morbidly obese.  According to her husband, he arrived home to find her sitting at the kitchen table with a plate of peanuts in front of her, and upon seeing him she stuffed a handful into her mouth and then went into anaphylactic shock. Her last words to him were, “Call 911.” Needless to say, I was stunned and wildly curious as to what could have happened to produce such a scenario.  Almost immediately afterward I wrote, in a single sitting, three chapters that closely resemble those that now open Mr. Peanut. But then things ground to a halt. I’d written myself into an exploration of marriage I didn’t understand just yet. I had enough wits about me to file those pages away and let them gestate.

And there was one other really important element in the novel’s genesis. My wife, Beth, and I met when she was 19 and I was 24, and got engaged nine months later. We then spent fifteen years together before having children. Now, that was great in many ways, because we grew up together without the additional pressures that come with having kids. It was easier for me to be a struggling writer, to work in fields that were related to my training in creative writing programs, like journalism, teaching, and especially bartending. We were able to survive her years in law school and then as a budding attorney.  There was a period there—it was like being trapped in Escher’s Ants on a Mobius Strip—when she and I were chugging along in our careers, doing the same thing day in and day out for, well, years. It was an odd stage of marital purgatory that I wanted to write about, when there’s love but also the absence of anything new.  To be really honest, I was thinking about what marriage would continue to be like without children.

Q: Mr. Peanut revolves around David Pepin, a man who might or might not have killed his wife. Her death is being investigated by two detectives, both of whose marriages we come to see intimately throughout the novel. Did you know all along that you would depict three different marriages and the ways in which they relate?

A:  I like to say that Mr. Peanut is the story of three marriages that tell the story of one marriage – that is, the detectives’ marriages, Sam Sheppard’s and Ward Hastroll’s, telling the story of David and Alice’s and vice versa. Either way, like the Escher drawings that inspire the video games David designs for a living, they’re supposed to interlock to form another pattern, to be dynamic in their interaction. As the novel progresses, the reader should feel a more intense oscillation between the parts and the whole.

Initially, however, I thought of the detectives merely as engines of the plot, present, as in a standard police procedural, to obtain and analyze evidence and to keep the action moving. So there was a great deal of trial and error, of leads chased down to nowhere over some thirteen years of work that grew less and less sporadic. And like the main character, Alice, the book grew and grew. Joseph Conrad talks about the problem of the swelling middle of any modern novel, something I soon experienced and then an aesthetic observation I tried to incorporate into Mr. Peanut with respect to David and Alice’s marriage. So as I made my crooked way, characters I thought would be ancillary increased in importance, took on weight, demanded more space. At a point I can’t recall, probably because I was a full-time journalist and then a teacher and could work on the novel only in the early mornings or during the summers, I stopped thinking of the detectives as detectives and began instead to develop them into characters who embodied both guilt and innocence with respect to their own marriages—and who in turn shed light on David and Alice’s. My hope is that readers experience a series of recognitions. That they read about each marriage and say, “Yes, I’ve been there.”

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