Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The coma plot is a mainstay of daytime soap operas and romantic comedies, useful for sidelining sympathetic but boring characters and handy for delaying a resolution (“She’s the only one who saw where Grady threw the pistol!”). Jami Attenberg’s debut novel, The Kept Man, is sort of a coma-plot story for the ’00s, and it’s a far, far better one than its predecessors, though its modern-day, Terri Schiavo-esque story never fully breaks free of the sudsy melodrama of comas past. The coma patient in this case is painter Martin Miller, husband of Attenberg’s narrator, Jarvis Miller. During the six years she’s waited for Martin to wake up, his art has become more and more valuable, and various dealers and friends are fighting over his legacy as if he’d already died. One day in a Laundromat, Jarvis befriends three men who call themselves the “Kept Man Club,” because they are all unemployed “artists” supported by their wives. Before he fell off a ladder and hit his head, Martin lived with Jarvis in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, which means the novel is filled with slightly irritating hipster authenticators—casual references to the Turkey’s Nest, the Greenpoint Tavern, the McCarren Park farmer’s market, and so forth. The Kept Men, in particular, offer a portrait of everything people hate about Williamsburg: “The man with the notebook is wearing glasses identical to those of the man on the cover of the Voice, and he has thick muttonchop sideburns that my eyes follow up to his sharp, dark hair, a wicked curl hanging over his forehead and down to his eyes, which are golden brown and seem gentle, but I don’t believe it, his lips are fixed too wryly for any sort of sincerity…” Still, Attenberg does have a real sense for the neighborhood’s history and movement, and some of the novel’s best writing is in her descriptions of Brooklyn: “Kent Ave. is as bumpy and sullen as ever, but I notice it’s slowly being smoothed over. Untended and ignored for so long, except as a truck route, a warehouse here, a bar there, and the crowning glory, the Domino Sugar plant, a beautiful building that regularly churned out a sour, earthy scent, until its recent closing. But now there are condos to be built on the waterfront…” As the novel draws to its overpoliticized climax (angry pro-life mobs and all), Jarvis’ scattered problems (discovering Martin’s pre-comatose infidelity, sleeping with one of the kept men but wanting to sleep with another) never coalesce with much dramatic tension. But her struggle to break away from Martin’s influence, still potent despite his vegetative state, makes for an absorbing story—despite the novel’s structural flaws, it is deftly written and very engaging. Jarvis, who begins the novel as a sort of hipster Tammy Wynette, develops into somebody far more interesting: a lonely, angry, determined woman. Her husband may be in a coma, but she’s just coming to her senses.