book club: ‘the best kind of people’.
by Michael King
I’m not sure where or when I picked up The Best Kind of People, but I do remember knowing instantly it had all the ingredients of a novel I tend to consume: a compelling plot, a family at the center, and a narrative that jumps from person to person as they move through the story.
On the night I cracked it open and read it for the first time, I was meeting my friend at a coffeeshop in Hell’s Kitchen. “I was trying to read something lighter,” I told him, having just finished a series of heavy reads. He read the back cover and scoffed. “Yes, Michael. Light.”
The Best Kind of People follows the story of the Woodbury family, whose patriarch, George, is abruptly arrested one quiet evening. A hometown hero and perennial recipient of the local high school’s Teacher of the Year award, George is at the center of several young girls’ sexual assault testimony. Rather than follow George, the narrative sticks to his family members: Joan, his wife; Andrew, their gay son, who lives in New York City; and Sadie, who is set to embark upon her Senior year. Independently and together, the Woodbury family has to make sense of the discovery that their family members has been accused of doing monstrous things.
“George loved to make breakfast. But when Joan got out of the shower this morning, she wouldn’t smell coffee brewing downstairs, or hear the spoon clink against the side of a pot of steel-cut oats. George often made fresh bread in the bread-making machine the night before, got up early to go for a walk, and by the time Joan roused from sleep he would be toasting almonds for their hot cereal, or chopping fresh mint into bowls of mixed fresh berries.”
A review on the cover of my copy of The Best Kind of People says it is particularly poignant since the Me, Too movement. As I read, I found this to be true, and the characters find themselves facing intense moral dilemmas: If they are normally espousing the idea that survivors should be believed, why do they find themselves hoping the stories about George are lies? What is it to love someone who’s done something monstrous? Should we believe him, when he insists he hasn’t? As the timeline progresses, each character has to grapple with their moral boundaries.
“Andrew recognized the bartender, slicing up limes on the counter, as the New Wave guy who used to work the door when he was young. The room was pretty empty except for two tables of regulars and one lone, elderly leather daddy showing off his moves in the middle of the small dance floor. The only thing that had changed was that the bulletin board in the hallway near the bathrooms didn’t just advertise the health clinic and leather ball anymore, but had brightly colored posters publicizing a fundraiser for the college’s LGBT club, a gay men’s running club, a drag ball, and a dance-a-thon.”
The writing in The Best Kind of People tends toward matter-of-factness in lieu of poetic prose. As we are with each character, in fact, we get a rundown of their day, and their thoughts read a bit like ethical arguments. What I mean to say is this: I wasn’t stunned by any of the symbolism, nor were there any sweeping statements about truth that embedded themselves in my memory. There were thoughtful ruminations on the complexities of sexual assault, on the statistical injustices of our justice system, and on the way our moralities unravel when they become personal.
“Sadie was trying to hide the fact that she was elsewhere, in her head mostly. She was trying to keep up with reading and homework, keep her eye on the prize even if actually attending class was a problem. She had developed strategies––such as using the third-floor bathroom, which was the least populated and where she would likely see Amanda. She went there after the meeting to crack the window and lean outside, get some air.”
As I closed out the novel, I was most stung by its conclusion, particularly as it revealed answers to the ‘epilogue’ questions for Sadie, Joan, and Andrew. Each of them has been irrevocably changed, not by their own actions and choices, but by George’s. This is, perhaps, the most important choice made in The Best Kind of People: We see tremors and ripples in the lives of only people on the periphery of these terrible incidents, and they are deep and lasting. The damage, we can feel and know, has been done.