‘The Good Luck of Right Now’’ is easy to read but difficult to characterize. Part fairy tale and part vision quest, it features Richard Gere — or at least his spirit, channeled through the mind of the main character — in the role of fairy godmother and spiritual guide. But the novel, the latest from Matthew Quick, who got his start in young-adult novels before writing “The Silver Linings Playbook,” could more aptly be called an adult-onset bildungsroman, in which a troubled man, pushing 40, faces the prospect of living independently after the death of his beloved mother.
A guileless but righteous nonconformist, Bartholomew Neil is something of a cross between Forrest Gump and Ignatius J. Reilly. His life philosophy blends Catholicism, Buddhism, and a worshipful reverence for “movie star Richard Gere,” as he refers to his hero, going so far as to wonder whether Gere might be “the modern-day Jesus Christ of Buddhism.”
Using the epistolary form to give voice to his endearingly deranged protagonist, Quick frames the novel as a series of letters from Neil to Gere, who never writes back but occasionally appears ethereally to advise and encourage his friendless, jobless pen pal. The plot follows Neil, who has lived with his mother all his life, on a quest to find himself and make meaning of the world without the one person who cared about him.
He seeks out Gere because the actor was his mother’s favorite and because near the end of her life, when a brain tumor began to eat away her sanity, she started to confuse her son with the movie star. Quick, a master scene-setter, details Neil’s personal tragedy in prose that is simultaneously funny and devastating. “Somehow,” he writes, “Mom and I slipped into a routine. We both began pretending. She pretended I was you, Richard Gere. I pretended Mom wasn’t losing her mind. I pretended she wasn’t going to die.”
The comparison to Gere is a double-edged sword: It’s a flattering fantasy, but one that casts Neil’s real life in sharp relief. Fearing that his mother has been calling him by Gere’s name because he is too much of a disappointment in his own right, he sets off to improve himself.
Thus begins a journey of self-discovery that brings him from Philadelphia to Canada in the company of similarly offbeat characters, taking a circuitous route through crazy coincidences and surprising turns that can be construed as magical, miraculous, or contrived. Expect aliens and prostitutes, a defrocked priest, a nefarious psychiatrist plotting secret experiments, and a telepath whose speech is a fusillade of F-bombs.
The sheer pace of the narrative makes it a page-turner, although the bizarre tangents are less compelling than the universal elements that form the story’s core: a sensitive soul who feels out of place everywhere and the unbearable burdens of loss and loneliness. The later chapters in particular are a stretch, and it takes some extraordinarily willful suspension of disbelief for the reader to stay the course.
But pretending is, after all, at the thematic heart of the story, along with power and powerlessness. The powerless, like Neil, can only pretend to have the same rights and privileges as those in power, whether they’re the popular kids who terrorized him in high school or the police officers who tormented him in his adult life.
Pretending, Neil discovers, is a way to rise above powerlessness. Pretending that you are Richard Gere can give you the confidence to win friends and woo girls. Pretending that bad things happen for a reason can give you the peace you need to put them behind you. Pretending can lead to believing, and believing can make things real.
The book’s title refers to a powerful form of pretending devised by Neil’s late mother, a selfless, Pollyannaish figure who sees luck as part of a zero-sum game: All the good luck in the world must be balanced by bad, and vice versa. So she feels guilty when good things happen to her because it means someone else must be enduring hard times, and is glad when, for example, the home she shares with Neil is ransacked by vandals, since someone somewhere must be on the high side of the karmic seesaw.
Luckily, when the book begins, the characters have already suffered more than their share of bad luck — not only the anguished Neil and his mother, but also his grief counselor, the friend he meets in group therapy, the librarian he has a crush on, and the Catholic priest who takes him under his wing.
It is no great surprise, then, that the ending brings hope, an uplifting twist that begins to cancel some of the crushing grief these characters have suffered. Neil, wiser and more self-possessed, scratches a life goal off his list. Balance is restored to the universe. And miraculously, Richard Gere — somehow exempt from karmic toll-taking despite the debt of good luck he owes for becoming a famous film star — emerges unscathed.
Jennifer Latson is writing a book about a genetic disorder called Williams syndrome, which makes people socially uninhibited and indiscriminately friendly.