Published by Knopf Publishing Group on June 27th 2017
Genres: Urban/Contemporary Fantasy
What do you get when you mix clairvoyance and psychokinesis with Cold War secret agents, the Chicago mob, shady con artists, and a dysfunctional family undergoing a crisis of zany proportions? You get Spoonbenders, a wildly original, humorous, and unexpectedly heartwarming tale of paranormal drama. This book had everything in it—and I do mean EVERYTHING—but I’ve seen Daryl Gregory pull off some pretty amazing things with an even stranger mishmash of ideas, so I never doubted for a second that he would be able to pull this off.
Spoonbenders introduces us to the Telemachus family, whose members made brief waves in the 70s by dazzling late-night talk show audiences with their amazing psychic abilities. At the head of this act is Teddy Telemachus, who ironically is the only one with no real power of his own, though he does make up for it by being a smooth and charismatic master swindler. The true talent was his wife Maureen, who is said to be the most powerful psychic in the world. And in their individual ways, each of their children inherited a bit of their mother’s gifts: Irene is a human lie detector, able to fox out the smallest insincerities or fabrication in others’ words; Frankie is a telekinetic, enabling him to dominate the pinball machines of his youth and later the roulette tables of his adult years; and finally there’s Buddy, whose second sight allows him to perceive events far into the future.
But that was then and this is now—the mid-90s to be exact. The Telemachus family has fallen far after their act was debunked by the Astounding Archibald, a renowned stage magician and skeptic. Not long after that in 1974, Maureen also passed away, leaving young Irene to take care of Teddy and her brothers. Now Irene is in her 30s, flat broke and raising her teenage son by herself. She is left with no choice but to move back into the house of her father, a septuagenarian still up to his grifting ways. Frankie has also gotten entangled with the local mafia, owing them a fortune after every one of his get-rich-quick schemes have failed to pan out. And Buddy…poor Buddy appears to have lost his mind, refusing to utter a word to anyone. Instead, he spends his days in Teddy’s house, starting one DIY project after another with seemingly no plans to complete any of them. However, Buddy knows something big is coming, and he does have a plan—one that may involve Irene’s son Matty, who has just discovered that he may have inherited his grandmother’s powers of astral projection.
With such a huge cast of characters spread across three generations, I was extremely impressed with how Gregory was able to keep this book organized and tightly paced. Each Telemachus had their own story arc, including past history and current conflicts, but most amazing to me was how the author managed to tie these separate plot threads back to each other, allowing all of it to culminate into an elegant and well-reasoned finale. As a voracious reader, I have to say I encounter books with ambitious ideas and big, bold premises all the time, but rarely have I seen such deft and clever handling of so many moving parts in a story. This could have easily devolved into an ugly mess, but in fact the results were the complete opposite, so my hat is definitely off to Mr. Gregory.
I also found the story unique and unpredictable—which is always a plus. Readers are bounced between the decades, from the height of the Cold War amidst fears of Russian psychic espionage, to the nostalgic 90s with the advent of AOL and a new wave of organized crime in Chicago. Not quite a suspenseful thriller novel, but at the same time not quite a feel-good family piece either, Spoonbenders is perhaps best described as a light dramedy, combining the ups-and-downs of life with a dark sense of humor that is as absurd as it is funny.
What’s more, the book also delivers a surprising amount of heart. As events in the novel prove, having supernatural powers does not necessarily bring happiness, and in fact, often they actually have detrimental effects on their personal wellbeing and relationships. While they may not be a typical family, I found it easy to connect with many of the characters due to the fact they deal with real and relatable problems, from Frankie’s lack of self-confidence to Irene’s struggles with her love life. Still, even when life gets too tough, it’s clear that they have each other to lean upon. They might not always get along, but the Telemachus family stays together through thick and thin, and an attack on one of them is an attack on all.
In the end, I really enjoyed Spoonbenders, which easily ranks among the most imaginative and well-written books I’ve read so far this year. This novel is definitely not your typical story about family, but it’s fun and engaging all the same. Daryl Gregory is fast becoming one of my favorite authors, and I’m looking forward to whatever and interesting and offbeat ideas he can come up with next.