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A Review of "Everything Hurts"

The blurb for people who don't like to read actual criticism:

It's been a while since I read or watched something that made me feel like I was an idiot who didn't get the joke.  Everything Hurts is a novel filled with so many references and bereft of so much detail and exposition that I honestly felt completely lost until maybe two-thirds of the way in.  Once it started to click, though, I quite enjoyed the character of Phil Camp, even if I didn't laugh as uproariously as I was probably supposed to.  It's a quick read that crafts a complex personality with many touching moments of flawed, lovable, curmudgeonly humanity.  It's a light recommend, but still worth your time.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The longer bit for people who like literary discussion:

I'll let you guys in on a secret.  I, a nerdy guy with a lot of insecurities and obsessions with film, culture, writing, and comedy, am a huge Woody Allen fan.  Shocking, I know.

Allen's movies frequently depict socially-stunted intellectuals who fail to maintain friendships or romances due to hangups and neuroses.  Although the characters may speak in a pseudo-academic babble, the movies remain accessible because Allen is smart enough to keep these personalities as a flavor to a more universal theme.

Everything Hurts reminds me of what would happen if somebody decided to take an Allenesque protagonist and write a novel from his point of view, but with the intellectual/cultural babble turned up a few degrees.  The result is a style of writing that is damn near impenetrable at times unless you are well-read and well-versed in all things related to New York, comedy, sports, and newspapers from the last thirty years.  And since I'm really only interested in one of those things, that meant I got lost pretty easily.

It's not just that Bill Scheft, the author, peppers in so many references in his writing - although that's certainly a huge part of it.  The problem is that Scheft spends so much time addressing his story in a sort of wise-cracking, sped-up "Listen, pal, here's the stuff you need to know" approach to storytelling that he omits basic things like setting, geography, and character action.  Entire decades are described within paragraphs, and the time perspective will shift rapidly from present day to flashback to exposition back to present before you can even catch your breath.  Dozens of characters are introduced and then referenced as if you know who's who, which means you'll need a separate spreadsheet to remember simple bullet points: "Wendy is the next-door neighbor.  Elly is Wendy's daughter.  Trish is Phil's ex-wife."

That being said, it's still an effective story.  It's just written in a style that I didn't care for.

The plot is poorly described on both the back cover and on the Amazon product page, so let me give you a more accurate blurb.  (Note that I said "more accurate," not "more marketable."  I'm crap at advertising.)

Phil Camp is mess: a divorced, soon-to-be-jobless, self-hating Jew with a persistent full-body ache.  When he meets Janet Abrun, the daughter of a self-help guru, he tries to put the pieces of his life back together - which may include patching things up with his estranged brother, a right-wing radio pundit.

The book description might actually be the biggest obstacle I had when I was first trying to get into the story.  Every description focuses heavily on the idea that Phil has written a self-help book more or less as a joke, but which inadvertently has become a huge success.  This is not the plot.  This is some background flavor that eventually works its way into a thematic conclusion, but which really isn't part of the central narrative.  Like, at all.

The book is called Everything Hurts, for Chrissake - it's about Phil's pain and his attempts to fix things.  If it was about his stupid self-help book, it would've been called Everything Hurts Even Though I Made A Million Dollars Selling a Self-Help Book.


Shitty book descriptions aside, Phil is a compelling character.  He has just enough personal tragedy to tug at your heart strings, but is not so caught up in his emotional frailty to appear mopey.  He is sarcastic without being cynical, flawed without being repulsive.  Scheft deserves credit for creating a perfectly-realized protagonist, because even though there were times when I felt like putting the book aside and leaving it unfinished, I did genuinely care about Phil's future.  That is the main reason why I stuck it through to the end, and it was an ultimately rewarding experience.

The humor is... well, it's not my cup of tea.  I don't want to say that it's "unfunny."  Humor is too individualized a thing for me to make a sweeping statement like that.  There are pieces where I could see what the jokes were and how they worked, but I simply didn't laugh.  That being said, I'm sure there are folks who will find this uproarious.

This is actually a point of confusion for me.  The book is framed as a comedy, but it works so much better as a drama with a few comedic underpinnings.  Scheft writes as if he's dropping one-liners with a cigar hanging out of his mouth when the best parts are not even close to funny.

My favorite scene is where Phil is recovering at his apartment from a Vicodin-induced high during which he called his brother's radio show and harassed him about "Shit Creek."  His brother, Jim, decides to pay Phil a visit to find out what the reference was supposed to mean.  Phil has a sudden breakthrough / breakdown in which he realizes that he was condemning his brother for abandoning him, and "Shit Creek" is a reference to a time in high school when a bunch of douchebags bullied Phil and forced him into a literal creek made of shit.  It's a great scene because it invokes an emotional arc in a way that is both overwrought and subtle - it's also the first part of the book where it feels like Phil's disconnected memories and anxieties are actually building up to a singular conclusion.

The book has been optioned for film according to Wikipedia and I feel like this could be a case where the movie is better than the book.  If some of the "it's got to be FUNNY!" tone could be cut back, then the emotional core of the story could really shine.

In the meantime, you might as well check out a copy for yourself and get ahead of the curve.