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By Noah Hawley
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Joe Henry was the glue that held his family together. Now he is dead, and his wife and sons are coming together for one final journey to scatter his ashes. First, however, his loved ones have some things to work out.
David, the older son, believes that any minute his life is going to fall apart and everyone he loves will leave him. His brother Scott can’t shake the belief that at heart, people are inherently rotten. Doris, their mother, just doesn’t believe in anything anymore.
Wickedly funny and biting, The Punch is an essential exploration of modern American grief, family violence, and redemption from the bestselling author of Before the Fall and creator of the Emmy award-winning series FARGO.
“Noah Hawley really knows how to keep a reader turning the pages.” — New York Times
Foreword by Noah Hawley
Is there any word more human than redemption? The sea otter has no concept of karma. Birds do not seek forgiveness. Spiders never feel regret. Human beings are the only animals that live their lives based on an idea, that make choices based on how we feel, the only species that holds a grudge. Our flaws are human flaws: arrogance, insecurity, addiction.
There is no tragedy in the animal kingdom, but humanity is rife with it. All the roads we should have taken. Things said that can’t be taken back.
Think of this book as a wildlife documentary, filled with every human flaw. Parents and children. Brothers and sisters. We should love each other, but we can’t. We should help each other, but we don’t. We should forgive the ones we love the most, so why are they the hardest to forgive?
The word absurd is defined in the following ways:
Adjective: utterly or obviously senseless, illogical, or untrue; contrary to all reason or common sense; laughably foolish or false.
Noun: the quality or condition of existing in a meaningless and irrational world.
Like redemption, absurdity is an idea that is uniquely human, because human beings are the only species on Earth that believe our lives should mean something, even as we realize how “laughably foolish or false” this idea is. What does the word meaning even mean? Viewed in this way, humanity becomes an Abbott and Costello routine, in which we are both the setup and the punch line. We are the birds who forgive, the regretful spiders.
They say comedy is tragedy plus time.
Another word for this would be family.
The emergency room is decorated for Valentine’s Day. Plastic roses sprout from metal bedpans. Glitter sawdusts the floor. Overhead, colored streamers ribbon out of paper hearts like veins, all the bright colors blown flat by the hospital fluorescents. Love, it seems, is alive and well at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. Inside the waiting room, the sick and wounded sit in orange bucket-bottom seats, cradling the parts of themselves that ache or bleed, consoled by friends and relatives. Their moans mix with the piano music of the man in the tuxedo T-shirt sitting in the corner. He’s playing electric keyboard and singing sentimental love songs: Your love is lifting me higher…You are so beautiful to me. It has to be one of the worst gigs in history, right below the band that played while the Titanic sank.
Time is elastic in emergency rooms under normal circumstances, but the usual slow-motion syrup of minutes and hours becomes surreal when given a soundtrack. Right now the clock says 6:15 P.M. In the back of the room, two men sit on hard-bottomed chairs, side by side. They are both in their mid-thirties, both wearing suits. One has his head back. He holds an ice pack to his broken nose. The other clutches ice to his broken hand. They are brothers, Scott and David Henry, but they don’t speak to each other. They won’t even look at each other.
A broken nose.
A broken fist.
You do the math.
And yet, despite the clear antipathy between them, and though there are plenty of empty chairs in the emergency room, they sit side by side.
Looking at them, you might think you understand what they’ve been through—a routine spat, words that escalated—but you’d be wrong. This was no simple brawl. No petty disagreement over inheritance or who said what to whom. These brothers—David the older, Scott the younger—have traveled thousands of miles together in the last few days. They’ve confronted death and strippers and the sudden life-altering emergence of God. They’ve drunk too much and sprinted into oncoming traffic.
Worse, they’ve had to spend time with their mother. Far, far too much time.
A white-gowned orderly emerges from behind a dirty yellow door.
“Hernandez?” he says. An elderly Latino man gets to his feet, assisted by a young woman, probably his daughter. Following behind is her son, playing a Game Boy. They disappear behind the door. The brothers go back to waiting.
With his chin tilted up at a forty-degree angle, all Scott can really see is the ceiling and the top eight inches of the walls. This is where most of the decorations hang, tacked up in a moment of seasonal zealotry by some love-struck orderly. The hearts have pithy sayings on them—True love is blind, Love is a many splendored thing, that sort of thing. It doesn’t seem so far off, this decorating schematic. All of them there, the bloodied and cramping, the sneezing and moaning, could just as easily have stumbled in off the street following some love-related mishap. They could be heartbroken, starved for attention, crushed by rejection.
Scott considers mentioning this to his brother, but the time for words between them has passed, swallowed by a black-hole acrimony familiar to combatants in most of the planet’s age-old ethnic conflicts. The Jews and Arabs, the Hatfields and McCoys. From here on out it’s broken bones or nothing.
In the last few days Scott has learned that sometimes in life you land on your face instead of your feet.
David has learned that he is the kind of person who sees a cliff coming and speeds up.
The orderly emerges, calls another name. A woman who has been vomiting into a plastic bucket rises weakly to her feet and shuffles forward. The brothers watch her go, ice melting, to the tune of “Wonderwall” by Oasis. They’re beginning to wonder if their time will ever come.
Speaking of time, there is a theory of time that goes like this: Chronological time is just a concept invented by animals. It is our way of understanding the universe. Sentient life could not exist without it. How would we navigate a universe in which things didn’t happen in some kind of order, in which there was no beginning, middle, or end? Empirically, however, says the theory, all events exist simultaneously, and the entire span of time is just one infinitely dense dot exploding all at once.
Time, in other words, is subjective. There is no such thing as past, present, or future. And if there is no such thing as past, present, or future, then the fight that divided these brothers is still happening. And because it is still happening, they feel no shame about it, no guilt or remorse. Because it is still happening, it does not color the rest of their lives one bit. Without time, you see, there is no memory. Memory exists exactly because time is linear, because the past recedes. The human brain collects the things you do and see and feel and hear (both good and bad) and chases you with them into the future. But without time, events would never recede into the past because there would be no past. People would not be forced to relive their mistakes over and over again, the things that haunt them.
And yet, because they are animals, Scott and David see time in a narrow linear light. They believe their lives have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They believe the things they’ve done, the choices they’ve made, have led them to this place of physical, emotional, and (most likely) economic bankruptcy.
A punch was thrown. A nose was broken, and (at the same time) a hand.
And so now, as a result, two brothers sit side by side in a New York City emergency room. They will not speak to or look at each other, but both find something reassuring about the closeness of the other.
Because, the truth is, each is all the other has left.
Joe Henry is dead. In his prime he was a tall man, fat around the middle, with a red beard. He had a smile like a pirate. Now his ashes are stored in a garage in Portland, Oregon, zipped up in a plastic bag, sealed inside a cheap wooden box. He lived for sixty-eight years, which in the age of the pony express and the steam engine would have seemed like a good long time, but now, with our modern medicine and cutting-edge technology, seems like a gyp. Joe was born in Ohio and died in Oregon. He spent most of his life in New York City. He was a soldier in the army during the Korean War (though he never fired a shot). At different times in his life he was a copywriter, an industrial filmmaker, and a salesman. And for the last seven years of his life he was a very sick man. He had what the literature refers to as multiple organ failure—heart, liver, kidneys. Because of this, he went to dialysis three times a week for four hours a day. There they literally drained the blood from his body, stripped out the toxins, and fed it back to him. What a thing to watch—your own blood flowing out of your body into a machine, the sight of it, hot and red, draining from your arm through a clear, shallow tube (does the machine suck it out, or is there a discomforting feeling of evacuation, of your blood rushing out, escaping?). It is like something fundamental about you is being rewired right before your eyes. How many days did he sit there wondering Am I still me without my blood, without the impurities they strip out?
Joe died with a huge zipper scar running from his clavicle to his belly. This is where the heart surgeons opened his chest and spread his ribs. He had smaller scars on his arms and legs where veins had been extracted and arteries bypassed. There was a shunt is his right arm, taped closed, and a strange subterranean bulge in the suicide vein of his right wrist, tubes lurking just under the surface. His teeth floated in a glass by the bed. A mess, in other words. He was a mess. He had never been a particularly healthy person. He smoked and drank. He never exercised, never went to the doctor. At sixty-one his heart, liver, and kidneys faltered. Over the course of the next seven years he went from hospital to nursing home, losing body mass, folding inward. He contracted liver cancer, a tumor the size of a walnut that was removed by surgeons with a glowing poker.
But still he kept going.
Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer, which, if you think about it, leads you to one of two conclusions: Either (A) there is no God or (B) God must have really, really wanted Joe Henry dead. Joe Henry must have owed God money or slept with his sister or something, because say what you want about heart failure, liver failure, and kidney failure, lung cancer is a motherfucker. Which is why, just three months later, Joe Henry died, restless and mumbling fitfully in his nursing home bed.
Now he is what you might call a passive character. The sum total he can contribute to the world is this:
By coincidence, zero is also the current level of confidence Joe’s son Scott has in the girl he has been dating since his father’s death. As our story begins, Scott is drunk and seated in the VIP area of a San Francisco strip club. He is watching a woman in a thong give a lap dance to Kate, the girl he’s dated for the last two months. The two of them are in the club as part of a foursome (though, in truth, it is more of a threesome, with Scott just along for the ride). It is the end of a long night of drama and humiliation. Certain truths have come to light (details of Kate’s extracurricular activities, unflattering information about her character) and Scott is exhausted, emotionally, physically. He is beginning to think he isn’t in Kansas anymore, by which he means he is off the map, has sailed past all known land-masses over the lip of the page (past the signs that read THERE BE DRAGONS HERE). It is all blackness now, and fog.
He orders another tequila, another beer, and watches as the man who brought them here, a fifty-three-year-old captain of industry, negotiates price with a blonde, top-heavy stripper. Scott watches as the Captain takes his girlfriend’s hand and retreats with the stripper to a back room for a private session, which Kate tells him will involve actual penetration (Kate and the Captain and his girlfriend come to this place often, it turns out). The VIP area is smoky, filled with the thundering confusion of electronic beats. It is two o’clock in the morning. They have already been to two gallery openings and a party. Kate leans over and tells Scott that the last time she was here with the Captain and his girlfriend, she made three hundred dollars lap-dancing for strangers. She says it with a smile on her face, pride in her voice. She is hot the way a knife is hot when you hold it over a fire, then press the blade against an open wound. When she looks at Scott, he feels like an egg cooking on the sidewalk. His dad has been dead for twelve weeks. All he wants is to be loved like a puppy. Instead he is locked in some kind of twisted dating deathmatch. He feels dizzy, a hot electric coil in his stomach frying up his guts.
No one ever told him there was so much sadness in the world. It is a smothering syrup that coats the land and sea, a cherry-red sludge you can’t escape. The catch is, you can’t see it all the time. When things are good, when the world is normal, the varnish of sadness is almost invisible, but then, when you least expect it, like an egg, the world cracks open and sadness coats your hair, your clothes. It comes in the mail. It seeps into every electronic transaction, a binary sadness of ones and zeroes. It pours out of the faucet when you brush your teeth, fills the air like pollen, reddening your eyes, making your nose run.
Right now what fills the air is the smell of pineapple and coconut, artificial, cloying. It’s the smell of cheap perfume the strippers carry in their boxy purses, like little cans of Mace. Food, they smell like food.
Seven hours from now—after the strip club, after a long cab ride home, after they tumble into bed, and Kate herself smells like food, like coconut and pineapple (like a stripper)—he will tell her she has to go. That she’s killing him. And right in the middle of his speech he will break down crying, feeling at once humiliated and liberated, because finally it’s all coming out, all the grief and anger, seven years of suffering and regret (heart failure and liver failure and kidney failure and liver cancer and lung cancer, Jesus Christ!). Death. He will be crying because of death. I just want to be happy, he’ll say pathetically, and she will hold him like she cares (stroking his hair, whispering soothing words), but she doesn’t. It is a lie. A beautiful lie. And he will tell her to get out, will throw her clothes at her, push her out the door, then lie on the bathroom floor panting, dizzy with booze and loss.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, this is not going to be a love story about Scott and Kate. The truth is, she is just another in a long series of crazy ladies, narcissists. Same bullet, he will say later. Different gun. She is like a shirt you keep trying on because it looks great on the rack, but on you it is misshapen, hideous. The colors are not your colors. The cut makes you look ridiculous. But you can’t walk away from it, can’t stop trying it on, because in your mind you think, This shirt is so cool! It is a shirt that looks profoundly stylish on a shaved-headed Italian soccer player modeling in a Dolce & Gabbana ad. And looking at it, you think it should look good on you, too, but it doesn’t. On you it looks like a clown costume. It is the same with these women. They are the perfect girls, yes, but for someone else.
Scott sits in a dark, humid strip club watching as a topless Asian dancer presses her tits against Kate’s face, as she spreads Kate’s legs and rubs her naked thighs against Kate’s denim-clad groin. Seeing this, Scott closes his eyes and for one overwhelming moment thinks, I miss my dad.
I miss my dad.
Or maybe the story begins here, at six A.M. in a house in Portland, Oregon, where Scott’s mother, Doris, emerges slowly from her bedroom, checking the hallway for signs of life, moving furtively, sneaking into the kitchen to pour herself another glass of wine before anyone else is up. She is having anxiety attacks these days, experiencing shortness of breath, feelings of panic and hopelessness. Her husband of almost forty-two years has been dead for three months, and his ashes are locked in a cheap wooden box in her sister-in-law’s garage, and the idea of this—the knowledge that all she has to show for four decades of having and holding, loving and obeying (though let’s face it, she was never that good at obeying), is a box of human kitty litter—keeps her up at night, makes her feel like an elephant is sitting on her chest. The deep-organ certainty that he will never again call her at eight in the morning from his nursing home and tell her his pancakes are cold, will never again kiss her forehead, hold her hand, and call her beauty, makes her want a cigarette, two, six, ten. But because of the emphysema she isn’t supposed to smoke, isn’t supposed to light up, close her eyes, and inhale that deep, chemical sense of calm. And yet, give me a fucking break. If there was a big glass case on the wall with a pack of cigarettes inside and a sign that read DO NOT BREAK EXCEPT IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, now would absolutely be the time to smash it open. Because if not now, then when? The man is dead, for God’s sake. All the information stored in his meaty gray brain has been returned to its original sources. All those memories, all the history books he used to pore over, now may as well have been unread. It is thoughts like these that drive Doris into the kitchen to uncork a bottle of Merlot at six o’clock in the morning.
Or maybe the real place to start this story is in Los Angeles, at the home of Doris’s other son, David, the eldest, the family man who, on a cold, unforgiving Valentine’s Day, will break Scott’s nose. He is a tall man with sandy brown hair and straight white teeth, a sales executive for a major pharmaceutical company. As our story begins, it is six-thirty in the morning and the kids are awake, running amok—Christopher, ten, and Chloe, eight, and the new baby, Sam—and it is time for brushing and dressing and eating. Time to pack lunches and buckle up. His wife, Tracey, isn’t a morning person and so David rises with the first rustle and herds the kids through their routines. He makes their breakfast, ties their shoes. His days are scheduled down to the millisecond. He has meetings to go to and sales strategy memos to write. His father has been dead for three months. He is stressed out and overwhelmed but has no time to deal with it, so he tells himself to man up. At this point, with a new baby and a full plate at work, grief is a luxury he can’t afford. Since his father died there hasn’t been a single moment to stop and take it in, to cry or scream or punch a hole in the wall, and it doesn’t look like there will be a moment in the foreseeable future. So he locks it away and steps into his underwear. Yesterday his brother, Scott, called and laid out this long, rambling monologue about some girl who’d broken his heart, the latest in a series of obviously unreliable lunatics, and it was all he could do not to tell him to shut up. Not to tell Scott to call back when he had some real problems—kids who need braces or a mortgage that needs paying.
David’s wife shifts under the covers, murmurs something encouraging, like Have a nice day or I love you. David knots his tie, unravels it, knots it again until the dimple is perfect. This is what he needs, for everything to be perfect, to be just so. But the truth is, David’s life isn’t perfect. Far from it. In fact, he has a secret. A big one, and the secret is this: He has a second wife in New York City. He never meant to have a second wife in New York, or anywhere else for that matter. It just sort of happened. He met a girl on a business trip last winter (Joy. Like how could you not fall in love with a girl named Joy?), and had a fling, and somehow she got pregnant. She wasn’t supposed to get pregnant, but she did. And when she told him, he found himself asking her to marry him, heard the words coming out of his mouth, even as this polite, semi-English-sounding voice piped up in his head and said, Excuse me, sir, but aren’t you already married? Like a butler was reminding him of some minor engagement he was late for, instead of the reality, which was HE WAS ALREADY MARRIED. He had two kids and a third on the way. He couldn’t get married again. There were laws against that kind of thing, not to mention all the moral implications. And yet there he was, proposing. And the next day he and Joy went to City Hall and stood before a justice of the peace—a foppish man with a comb-over—and Joy floated an inch above the floor, beaming, while David swayed on his feet, sweating, tugging at his tie. And now there is a baby boy, also named Sam. (He tried to stop her. Sam was, coincidentally, Joy’s father’s name. Like what are the odds?) And so in just twelve short months, David has turned into one of those Montel Williams Show subjects (Next up on Montel: Bigamy!). But it’s not his fault. He swears. He never meant for any of this to happen. Things just kind of…escalated.
But that’s not even the worst of it. The worst of it is, in three days his mother and brother are going to arrive carrying a cheap wooden box of ashes. They’re going to show up with all their chaos, their alcoholism and tragic love disorders, and turn his life upside down for two days. And then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the four of them (David, Scott, Doris, and Joe’s ashes) will wing to New York City for Joe’s memorial service (big party, historic location, towers of shrimp). After which, if they manage to survive, the four of them, exhausted and cranky, will pile into a rental car and begin the seven-hour drive to Bailey’s Island, Maine, where on a rocky, winter beach they will open the box and spread Joe Henry’s ashes into the sea.
It’s enough to make a grown bigamist cry.
There was an article in the New York Times recently about a survey given to scientists around the country. In it they were asked to answer the following question: What do you believe is true even though you can’t prove it?
Kenneth Ford, a physicist, wrote, “I believe that microbial life exists elsewhere in our galaxy.”
Roger Schank, a psychologist and computer scientist, said, “I do not believe that people are capable of rational thought when it comes to making decisions in their own lives. People believe they are behaving rationally and have thought things out, of course, but when major decisions are made—who to marry, where to live, what career to pursue—people’s minds simply cannot cope with the complexity.”
Scott Henry is an expert on the complexity of life’s decisions. He knows these kinds of choices—who to marry, where to live, what career to pursue—are not easy. In his job, he hears a lot of waffling. Scott is a spy. A corporate mole. When you call customer service for any one of a dozen companies, he is the one who monitors the calls. Quality assurance, they call it. Day after day he sits in a cubicle in Emeryville, California, surrounded by other spies in cubicles. They all wear headsets and listen in real time to the conversations of others. Standing in that room, surrounded by bodies, one hears nothing but the collective breathing of a hundred eavesdroppers.
Right now Scott is at the Oakland airport waiting to board a flight to Portland, Oregon. He is going to see his mother. This is the first stage of his dad’s final trip, the four-city tour (like his father’s ashes are some kind of rock band: Hello, Portland! Hello, Los Angeles! Hello, Madison Square Garden!) that will put to rest his father’s physical remains. Scott wants to do this as much as he wants to take an electric drill and bore a hole in his head. He remembers reading an article about people who do that, who drill holes in their heads. The rush of air on their exposed brain tissue is supposed to get them high. He wonders if any of those people ever called customer support while he was listening. If, as they were on hold waiting to speak to a friendly, conscientious salesperson about a faulty microwave they bought online, they revved up the old Black & Decker and set the drill bit to their temples. It wouldn’t surprise him.
His phone rings. It’s his brother, David, calling from L.A.
“Are you there yet?” David asks.
“I’m at the Oakland airport. I’m considering drilling a hole in my head to relieve the pressure. What do you think?”
He can hear his brother typing at the other end of the line. That’s the thing with David. You never have his full attention.
“I’m supposed to tell you that we have plenty of room if you want to stay here once you reach L.A.,” David says.
“Tracey thinks it’s the right thing to do. To have the family all together.”
“Is she crazy?”
“That’s what I wondered, but of course you can’t say that kind of thing out loud. Not to my wife.”
- "Noah Hawley is one of our great young writers, able to balance breakneck plotting with real emotion, and with THE PUNCH he has struck gold. No reader should pass this by."—Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of LESS
- "Noah Hawley writes irresistible fiction. I devoured THE PUNCH in three hours flat, stopping only to marvel over the freshness of a phrase or the effortless wit of a line of dialogue."—Mary Roach, author of STIFF and BONK
- "Like an American Martin Amis, Hawley expertly rides the line between hilarity and horror and deftly mines his characters' secret longings-their shame, hope, and desire. At times the story is so exquisitely uncomfortable you'll put your hands over your eyes, but you'll end up peeking between your fingers because it's so wickedly good."—Tom Barbash, author of THE LAST GOOD CHANCE and ON TOP OF THE WORLD
- "Noah Hawley really knows hot o keep a reader turning the pages."—New York Times
- On Sale
- Oct 16, 2018
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Grand Central Publishing