The Gimmicks by Chris McCormick
Published by Harper
Publication date: January 7, 2020
Genres: Cultural, Debut, Fiction, Historical, Literary
I didn’t plan this, but I’m back today with another unusual book (Monday’s review). The Gimmicks is about two teenage brothers in Armenia in the 1970s. One is a giant, standing over 6’6” tall, while the other is a competitive backgammon player. The novel moves between their lives and the life of a former pro-wrestling manager in 1980s America. When the book arrived I actually wondered why I requested it. I don’t follow pro-wrestling and even though you’re not supposed to—I judged this book by its cover, which I really don’t like. Thankfully, I ignored all these signs and discovered a story that had little to do with wrestling and everything to do with identity, love, and betrayal.
I’m not sure I should even share the plot of The Gimmicks because whatever I write will sound like the beginning of a bad joke. Or, at the very least, a seriously overworked plot. I’ll leave it at this: Ruben and Avo are second cousins, but are as close as brothers. Avo is quiet and tall. Ruben is the backgammon whiz who dreams of both avenging his ancestors for the Armenian Genocide and getting out of Armenia. He’s challenged by a girl who is as good as he is, if not better. A girl Avo loves. The novel alternates between their childhood in the 1970s and 1980s America where 60-year-old Terry Krill now raises hypoallergenic cats and tries to locate the best wrestler he ever managed. A massive Armenian man known as The Brow Beater.
What’s curious about The Gimmicks (beyond the plot) is that for as much as there is going on, the novel moves very slowly. Quiet, small scenes of life that, even though they’re conveyed in lovely prose, didn’t move the story’s dial for chapter after chapter. Nearing the halfway point, I considered whether to finish or give up. I decided to let go of the need for momentum and let the story reveal itself at its own pace. This is not something I would normally do, but early on this sentence struck me:
…my frustration turned to bitterness, and I sat cross-legged and mean on the shores of my own resentment.
Such evocative writing meant I had to stay the course and see what else McCormick was trying say.
In the novel’s second half, my patience felt worth it. The novel’s slender, tangled threads smoothed out to reveal a textured tapestry of family, obsession, honor, and grief. McCormick eschews easy answers in exploring the concepts of justice and the impact of widespread cultural violence. He works hard to put forth a story that, at times, aches with poignancy. But if you need to be propelled in your reading, then The Gimmicks is likely to fall flat. The plot sprawls and sputters. What remains strong throughout is the writing and the characters, which was enough for me. I’m optimistic to see what McCormick does next.
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