“If only I had done _____ my life would be so much better now.”
People often look back at decisions made — about a job, a relationship, a relocation — and wonder how things might have turned out if they’d chosen differently. This impossible yearning drives novels featuring time travel or parallel realities, where readers can see down the length of the road untraveled. (Carol Anshaw’s “Aquamarine” from 1993 is one criminally overlooked example.)
Jonathan Carroll’s “Mr. Breakfast” is, for much of the journey, entertaining and thought-provoking. We meet Graham Patterson at an inflection point, having just turned his back on a loving relationship because he’s afraid of having children and abandoned his faltering stand-up comedy career.
With no idea of what’s next, Graham embarks on a cross-country trip. He also impulsively decides to get a tattoo, inadvertently choosing a design imbued with magical powers. Suddenly, as Anna Mae, the tattoo artist explains, this lost soul can jump between three universes.
In addition to his original state, there’s Graham 2, who took huge risks in his stand-up career and is now a national star, and Graham 3, who found the courage to start a family with Ruth, his true love, instead of letting her walk away.
There are others with the tattoo as well, some content enough in their current lives who choose not to explore the possibilities, and others who willingly leap through the sliding doors.
There are rules of course: Graham gets a limited number of jumps, and in the other worlds, he can only observe, not interact … unless and until he commits to staying forever. He eventually learns that without a definitive decision he finds himself becoming increasingly unstuck in time and place in his original self.
Early on, there’s too much clunky exposition and a sense that Carroll is merely sketching in the characters. We keep reading about the death of Graham’s comedy career as well as the success of Graham 2′s, but we don’t hear the jokes of either (other than a brief bit when Graham 2 deals with a heckler). Since stand-up is such a personal art, the lack of insight into the two Grahams is glaring.
There are other awkward or overexplained stretches later too, but Carroll eventually settles in and does a good job of raising the stakes for Graham in each new scenario, building suspense as Graham feels the weight of his actions. “In life, we pass through many doors and close them behind us, sometimes with an angry slam, sometimes just a gentle click. Moving on, we rarely think about most of the people we left behind and what they did or how they lived after we left. But they do carry on too.”
And as the original Graham, after walking away from the stage, finds fame and fortune as a photographer, Carroll captures the moments Graham freezes in time, giving us an understanding of him that we should have gotten from his jokes.
“It showed a large run-down, vandalized, and badly boarded up salmon-colored roadside diner set alone on some bleak desert stretch of highway that looked like it could just as well have been on the moon… The diner had a long-faded red and white sign over the front door. It said, ‘MR. BREAKFAST,’ although two of the letters had fallen sideways over time… At the front of the diner’s empty parking lot was a giant weatherworn standalone statue of a smiling chef in a high toque holding up a tray with the name of the diner across the top. Below it, on the marquee sign … was a single sentence: SOLITUDE CAN BE A MOODY COMPANION.”
Unfortunately, Carroll falters again at the end. The book begins with Ruth, the original Graham’s ex, talking to a biographer seeking the truth about the legendary photographer who had utterly vanished. Throughout the book, Ruth, the one left behind, reappears, commanding Carroll’s attention and our empathy. But near the end, after introducing a quarter-baked subplot about her wayward son, he abandons Ruth’s side of the story.
Equally problematic is that Graham’s final decision feels like a cop-out — there’s a contrived crisis where Graham makes his choice instinctively because there’s a life on the line. He doesn’t fully measure the meanings of the different paths or ways he could change his original life for the better. Carroll’s ending instead shifts its attention to other, ancillary characters, in a chapter that is intriguing thematically but that doesn’t quite cohere.
In another universe, perhaps, there’s a version of Carroll’s novel where the final 40 pages are as entertaining and provocative as the best parts of the story that preceded it. Whether it’s worth jumping to that timeline just for a more satisfying ending is up to you.
By Jonathan Carroll
Melville House, 272 pp., $28.99
Stuart Miller is the coauthor of “The Other Islands of New York City” and author of “The 100 Greatest Days in New York Sports.” He writes for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and other publications.