Published by Knopf
Publication date: April 15th 2014
From the time he is nine years old Miles Adler-Rich is a snoop. Not just a hanging around snoop, a hiding walkie-talkies and wiring-an-extension-into-the-family’s-phone-line snoop. Initially, he just wants to know if his parents are going to relent and let him watch Survivor but when his efforts to know all fail and they announce they’re getting divorced, it becomes something more. His mother begins dating. Eli is a mathematician like herself but he lives in Washington D.C. and is undergoing a divorce himself. Still, his ardor is rewarding and he has an ability to say all the right things despite a somewhat dorky and unromantic outer appearance. His appearance inflames Miles’ inquisitive nature combined with a son’s protective instincts and his surveillance becomes a compulsive habit. He enlists the help of his friend, Hector, whose intelligence and crush on Miles’ mother makes him highly incentivized to create plots and drama where there might be none.
Casebook by Mona Simpson, is presented as a vanity press book printed in the back room of a comic book store in California. Miles and Hector are acknowledged as the authors of the manuscript, which is also evidenced by Hector’s footnotes to some of Miles’ comments with which he disagrees. The book is a “casebook” of their work scoping out Eli, the boyfriend. When, as the years pass, bits and pieces of Eli’s story don’t add up, Miles takes to sitting in an empty room underneath his mother’s therapist’s office and listening to their sessions through the heat vent. It’s not that he hates Eli and wants to discredit him it’s that, to Miles’ black/white teen mind, there is no room for misunderstanding or ambiguity. Either you want to marry my mother or you don’t. When enough time has passed and incongruities are rampant Miles and Hector decide to take the next step and hire a private detective. At this point, whether they mean to or not, the teens are moving into very grown-up situations and games turn into serious matters.
I had been too suspicious. Hector and I both. And for all our suspecting, we didn’t really know anything until we saw hard evidence. All our suspicions hadn’t protected us from the bad truth.
Simpson is gifted at writing the flotsam and jetsam that floats through the minds of her characters in such a way as to trigger instant recognition in the reader. Just as she did for teenage girls in Anywhere But Here, so Simpson does for teenage boys in Casebook. The novel may end with Miles as an adult but the physical passing of time pales in comparison to his mental and emotional growing pains. There are all the illicit thrills of seeing girls you like and the horror of having a friend find your mom sexy. There are deeper issues of sexuality and wanting to fit in and all are written with the careful, kindly hand of an author who knows how to portray even the smallest of emotions with compassion. It is to Simpson’s credit that her prose takes something as potentially ludicrous as two boys dabbling in the mysteries of adult relationships and imbues it with the seriousness they themselves feel. She gives weight and credibility to their emotions yet leaves space for those of us who have already passed through those years to commiserate. Casebook may be presented as a how-to spy book but there is no mystery to the tender adventures of Miles—just the bittersweet drama of growing up.