Author ~ T.J. Klune
Publisher ~ Dreamspinner Press
Published ~ 16th October 2015
Genre ~ Contemporary M/M Romance
Gustavo Tiberius is not normal. He knows this. Everyone in his small town of Abby, Oregon, knows this. He reads encyclopedias every night before bed. He has a pet ferret called Harry S. Truman. He owns a video rental store that no one goes to. His closest friends are a lady named Lottie with drag queen hair and a trio of elderly Vespa riders known as the We Three Queens.
Gus is not normal. And he's fine with that. All he wants is to be left alone.
Until Casey, an asexual stoner hipster and the newest employee at Lottie’s Lattes, enters his life. For some reason, Casey thinks Gus is the greatest thing ever. And maybe Gus is starting to think the same thing about Casey, even if Casey is obsessive about Instagramming his food.
But Gus isn’t normal and Casey deserves someone who can be. Suddenly wanting to be that someone, Gus steps out of his comfort zone and plans to become the most normal person ever.
After all, what could possibly go wrong?
“How to Be a Normal Person”, by TJ Klune, is a terribly ironic, unbelievable, brilliantly-written, but utterly and totally strange book. I have never read a TJ Klune book that was not funny, smart, and heartfelt, and this is no exception. But I will readily admit that “How to Be a Normal Person” is a bit stranger than even Mr. Klune’s normal strange.
It is a love story, an ironic indictment of everything hip, a radical condemnation of Michael Bey as the corrupter of all modern culture (anyone up for Transformers 137?), a condemnation of any car newer than 1994, a paean to Elderly Lesbian Sister Motorcycle Gang Threesomes, and a prodigious hosanna to pot, weed, the stronger the better, the more the merrier.
Could it be that Mr. Klune smoked a bit too much while writing this adventure in modern surrealism, or is he just now demonstrating the perversity of his rather demented mind? Inquiring minds want to know!
“Normal” (the title is entirely too long), is about Gustavo Tiberius, a young, reasonably attractive modern gay guy raised by his beloved, but almost perpetually stoned, single parent, Pastor Tommy (an incomprehensible title, since he was always a rather dedicated atheist), who managed two things despite his perpetual high: 1) he loved his son Gus, and let him always know that he was loved and perfect, exactly as is; and 2) managed to buy up almost the entire town of Abby, Oregon, immediately lowering the rents to the tenants and earning the love and respect of everyone in town.
He was also rollicking good fun. Gus is not. He might have been had his mother not abandoned him before the age of 3, and his father not died and left him alone and bereft three years ago. This remarkably OCD young man (still not quite thirty) grew into the town curmudgeon, a guy who reads the encyclopedia Britannica every night before bed, wears a perpetual frown of disapproval each day, wakes up, telling himself “today will be an OK day”, flexes his almost-existent arm muscles in the bathroom mirror as he does his daily ablutions, eats the same breakfast, one red apple, before loading his pet ferret (Harry S. Truman) into his carrier, and heads out to get his plain black coffee at Lottie’s Lattes before walking to his video-rental store, a half-block away, Harry S. Truman firmly under his arm.
Every day is an OK day for this eccentric voyager, because every day is almost exactly the same. A busy day at the video rental store consists of three-to-four customers, a normal day, maybe one or two. His retail category, one long dead, is kept alive by Gus, who hates change, which is why he drives a ’94 Ford Taurus (the greatest car ever manufactured). Even his customers are the same, depending on the day of the week. The three Elderly Lesbian Leather Cycle Sisters (no one knows if they are either sisters or Lesbians, but it seems likely), who terrorize the countryside on their trusty Vespas, when not renting DVDs in alphabetical order by title. Currently, they’re up to the ‘C’s. Gus’ lunch, each day, is brought over by Lotte, late of Lotte’s Lattes (oh my how he hates alliteration!), the tiny woman with the big drag-queen hair, and he lives in fear that she will betray him one day by including a pickle with his sandwich. He hates pickles.
Gus’ routine is interrupted in the most offensive way possible. When he goes into Lotte’s Lattes, one morning, there is a young man, with unruly hair tied back in a messy little bun, and an incredibly scruffy beard, behind the counter. He can’t help himself (this is NOT happening!), but one look in his beautiful blue eyes, and the orderly world of the tongue-tied video-store-proprietor and landlord to almost the entire town, is upended, perhaps permanently. OMG, there’s a hipster serving him his coffee. This cannot be! What is that terribly annoying pounding sensation and constriction in his chest? Perhaps he’s coming down with something?
The scruffy hot guy behind the counter is Lottie’s nephew, Casey, an asexual stoner hipster. Now Gus is no virgin. He’s hooked up at least three times, but all three occasions turned out to be meaningless one-night-stands, and not worth breaking up his routine for. Since Pastor Tommy died, Gus was pretty sure he doesn’t want to get too close to anyone, especially an asexual hipster working in his aunt Lottie’s coffee shop.
But finally, he can’t help himself. He is fascinated with Casey, but lost as to what to do about it. Let’s just say that Casey’s social skills are not exactly highly developed. Oddly enough, his friends, the three elderly women in the Lesbian Vespa Motorcycle Gang, Lottie, and a few others around town understand that Gus really does love them under all his disapproving scowling and pouting, and he sometimes (not too often) admits he sort of likes them too - even if they are prone to alliteration (which he hates, despite the fact that often uses it, himself, in an ongoing battle of wits with everyone else in the world) and who may even like the occasional Michael Bey movie.
Casey, as it turns out, is rather special. He is not the asexual shiftless stoner hipster he appears to be. Well, actually, he is, but he’s also a world-famous and wealthy best-selling author of young adult, post-apocalyptic, vampire/werewolf novels starring yet another threesome that he has no idea how to resolve. In fact, L. A. has gotten to him, and he came to take the mountain air in Abby, Oregon to recharge his batteries and “find himself” again, as any self-respecting hipster needs to do, from time to time.
Unfortunately, Gus accidentally overhears a conversation between Casey and his aunt in which they discuss how strange, weird and not-normal Gus is. That hurts, because his fascination with Casey is growing instead of wearing off. He loves to make Casey smile. And his tongue-twisted, but brilliant perversion of the English language, and his huge heart, make Casey smile often.
Thus begins the guts of this long and bizarre tale – in which our OCD hero decides that he needs to become normal, orders “the Internet” from his Cable Company and looks up “How to Become a Normal Person” in Google. Unfortunately, his first hit is a Tumblr porn blog and a video in which the naked, overdeveloped male lead keeps telling the hapless woman that he is going to make her mouth pregnant. That’s it, slam the lid on the laptop. This is NOT going to work.
Fortunately (or not), he finds a site directly on point – how to come off as a normal person and interact with other normal people normally. It’s like 200 steps, each one more bizarre than the previous one.
Note: This is a plot device, not a real site. It is a perfect parody of what the Internet is really like, a world in which information is often wrong, but worse, delivered irreverently. Being the literal OCD, but big-hearted and lonely young man he is, Gus follows the instructions to the letter. If the blog suggests discussing a topic or dressing a particular way, instead of using the suggestions as examples of what to do, he acts out each one. Which makes a number of conversations unutterably strange, but that still makes Casey smile, so that’s OK.
Casey also smiles broadly when he discovers that Gus wears pajama pants with little faces of a well-known Palestinian terrorist on them:
“You have sleep pants with tiny pictures of… is that Yasser Arafat? You have pajamas with a dead Palestinian leader’s face on them?”
“Uh. Yeah. They’re my Yasser Arapants!”
Note: Let’s be honest, who but TJ Klune would have the nerve to write those lines? Who, indeed!
Similar insanity ensues. After all, the instructions on How to Become a Normal Person are virtually endless.
Not a lot happens except for Gus wearing his deceased father’s loud Hawaiian print shirts and flip-flops (totally out of character), proposes to write a movie about a band of monkeys who are international detectives, four of Casey’s L. A. Hipster buddies show up, and commence to try to humiliate Gus who is rich enough to buy them all several times over, especially as they are all broke poseurs, and he’s smart and honest enough to expose all their hypocrisy and pretensions. He invites Casey on their first date, the town’s Strawberry Festival, only to find out that Casey is deadly allergic to strawberries.
But the most important thing that happens is that Gus smiles. He actually cracks a smile, and in public, to boot, something no one had seen since Pastor Tommy passed away. Could it be, could Gus actually be happy for a fleeting moment? He’d swear it wasn’t true, he’d insist it was just an attack of stomach gas, but everyone knows. OMG, Gus was falling in love with the asexual stoner hipster! Will wonders never cease?
In reviewing my notes on “How to Become a Normal Person”, I realized that there just isn’t much to be said about Mr. Klune. He is one of my top two or three favorite authors. His recent “The Lightning-Struck Heart” had me rolling on the floor. “Normal” is not, in my opinion, his best book, but you have to understand that TJ Klune’s worst writing is better than the best work of almost any other author. He applies his acerbic wit often at virtually the same moment that he tugs at your heartstrings. You will love Gus, and you will miss Pastor Tommy, and you’ll root for these two crazy young men to get it together, though you’ll doubt if they ever have sex, what with Casey being asexual and Gus loving Casey’s hugs with a true passion.
And you will admire TJ’s remarkable aim. His ability to sight a likely target and tear it to pieces, exposing all of its pretensions and shallowness is legendary.
I can’t help but feel that this book was an experiment on Mr. Klune’s part. It’s really not at all like most of his other books, which are jet-propelled, slapstick-inspired, and profoundly moving, all at the same time. This book was much slower (as befits the pace of its protagonist and the sleepy village in which it’s set). But I’m not entirely sure it was an always-successful experiment. After the first few “chapters” of the online advice site, in which he exposes the core of the craziness of the Internet, it got a bit old, just as it does in many of the real-world web sites I’ve surfed in recent years. I got lost, for hours, the other night, in an intense site on how to season a cast iron pan! As a plot device setting Gus up for his next grand faux pas, the “normal” blog worked, but I could have done with a bit less of it. On the other hand, his remarkable scene in which Gus orders a Web connection from his local cable company was so on point as to be hysterical – and maddening realistic. Gus thought he’d tear his hair out trying to communicate with a sales rep who refused to go off-script, and his installer insisted on three days’ paid vacation after installing the “Internet” for him.
Aside from the slight tedium of the endless Internet guide to normalcy, it’s simply a brilliant book. It’s also a smart book. Trust me, you won’t identify with the characters, and you’re not supposed to. You’re supposed to delight in them, in their bumbling, tongue-tied intellectualism, yet revel in the big-heartedness and innocence at their core.
Read it. After all, everyone deserves an occasional descent into friendly insanity, and no one does friendly insanity better than TJ Klune.