Moorefield House Publishing
|Posted on September 29, 2017 at 11:40 AM|
The Minor Outsider by Ted McDermott
Reviewed by Jacob Hammer
Todd McDermott's debut novel, The Minor Outsider, is an engaging downward spiral. He
gives us a narrator who is often aware of his faults and the turn they are making in his life, yet he
makes little effort to change his behavior. Simultaneously, McDermott allows us to find
ourselves blindsided often enough to keep interest. This is by no means a predictable book.
When we are first introduced to our narrator, Ed, he is enjoying the summer after his first
year at a graduate program in Montana. He seems basically aimless, but not self-destructive.
Taylor is a new student that he accidentally meets while wandering the surrounding bike paths.
Almost immediately, he feels the terrible pull of love in him. Taylor has a boyfriend, but Ed still
seeks her out constantly, trying to play it cool. She stays fairly distant, but friendly, until she
breaks up with her boyfriend. The same day they start dating. Things go fairly well between
them for a while until Taylor feels the lump in Ed’s arm that is apparently a tumor. Ed has known
about it for some time, but has not had it checked on or told Taylor about it. She insists that he
should get it tested. Ed resists, but eventually does get it looked at. At first, he is told that he
likely has a less serious condition that produces benign tumors in the body, but that he also could
have a condition that will result in unremovable brain tumors. As if this was not complicated
enough, Taylor becomes pregnant. They remain optimistic though, or at least Taylor does. Ed
begins to retreat into himself and as he does so, he also begins to experience hearing loss. He
tries to ignore it, as it would mean that he has the more serious condition (that could be passed to
his unborn child) and retreats still further into himself. He finally goes to get an MRI so that he
can know for sure. He does not tell Taylor he is going even though she is extremely concerned
about his health. When he finds out that he has tumors in his brain, he drives for hours and ends
up in another small town and sleeps with a girl he meets there. As morning arrives, he is filled
with regret and hurries home.He decides that they should get engaged instead of telling Taylor
what happened. Ed is full to the brim with guilt. He finishes his writing program, but is unable to
find a job in the field. He ends up working as a baker for a cafe in town. Taylor continues to
work away at her writing while Ed’s falters. He hears less and less. At a hockey game, they run
into the girl that Ed slept with the night before he proposed and Taylor learns what happened.
She locks him out of their apartment and he tries to get in. They wrestle on the floor and the
police come when the neighbors call. Ed is arrested and kept in jail over a holiday weekend then
told he is not allowed to contact Taylor for ten days. He returns to obsessing over her. While
working on a freelance journalism piece, he steals a gun from a self-defense class. He thinks
about killing himself for a bit, but the gun is not loaded. Instead he decides to talk to Taylor. She
tells him to leave. He agrees. He goes to his car and writes a check for all the money that he has
to his name and drives away with the empty gun.
Throughout the book, we are constantly aware of the small mistakes that the narrator is
making. From the start, his interest in Taylor is rooted in their difference from each other. He is
brooding and in denial about his tumors. Taylor is optimistic and more perceptive. Ed seems to
hope that she will fix him without any effort on his part. He becomes complacent and Taylor
repeatedly points out how he doesn’t listen to what she wants; he just runs with what he thinks
she wants. This deafness to her needs eventually becomes literal as the tumors blossom in Ed’s
brain and confirm his doom. Ed continually refuses to reach out and admits repeatedly to
becoming stuck in his own head and his own thoughts when he should be reaching out, but he
does nothing. He is motivated by guilt to a fault. His first guilt is over money that he inherited
from his grandmother and then invested well. He never tells anyone about it and Taylor does not
find out about it until he writes that farewell check. Ed performs poverty with his friends in the
program and feigns worry over the costs for testing his tumors all the while letting this financial
guilt grow in him not unlike those same tumors. On to this he adds his guilt for cheating on
Taylor and the desperate attempt to hold things together that is his proposal to her. Again, he
props up his perception of what Taylor would want instead of asking and listening to her. This
deafness results in their final separation and his departure down the unknown road.
Maybe this departure and his final gift to her are the one time his guilt motivates him to
do something good for Taylor and their child. In any case, here we have an intriguing character.
The stripped down descriptions and dialogue move the book along quickly and work to convey
the awkward interactions between uncertain adults as they try to navigate the realities of
adulthood and their performed identities to each other. Definitely worth the read and something I
struggled to put down.