Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour
by John Blumenthal
Published by St. Martin's Press
309 pages, 2004
The State of Romance
Reviewed by Mary Ward Menke
Does romantic love really exist? Plato G. Fussell is convinced that it doesn't, and his own experiences appear to support his hypothesis.
In Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour, author John Blumenthal takes us into the life of "Superdork," the independently wealthy, admittedly neurotic Plato G. Fussell as he tries to sort out and come to terms with the world. The result is a comic love story that will have readers laughing as well as appreciating their own mental stability, however questionable it may be.
Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour is Blumenthal's second novel. Like the first,What's Wrong with Dorfman? -- which was a January Magazine pick for Best of 2000 -- Millard Fillmore is a character study of the rich and crazy. Whereas Martin Dorfman is a Hollywood screenwriter whose main neurosis is hypochondria, Plato Fussell is a writer with myriad neuroses and anxieties, not the least of which is a penchant for playing absurd word games when he's nervous. In addition to being "punny," he often reverses letters in words, as in "beautiful nemow," instead of "beautiful women," or utters spoonerisms, such as "shake a tower" rather than "take a shower."
Fussell is well aware of the reasons for his many hang-ups, starting with his parents. His father, being "a big fan of the ancient Greeks," bestowed upon his son that unusual first name, introducing him early on to a life of embarrassment and ridicule. On the first day of kindergarten when the children are asked to introduce themselves, Fussell hems and haws, delaying the inevitable as long as possible; when he finally blurts out his name, he is met with raucous laughter from the rest of the class.
"His name is … Play-Doh!" one of them screamed. "Hey, Play-Doh!"
The only student who doesn't laugh is the lovely and mysterious Daisy Crane. Her restraint thereby launches a one-sided love affair lasting the first 28 years of Plato Fussell's life. When finally requited, it leads to even more proof that romantic love is nonexistent.
Fussell's mother did her own number on her son. Having grown up during the Depression, she learned to pinch pennies and insisted on buying young Fussell's clothes at a factory outlet store, Fineman's Off-the-Rack. Of course, she bought everything a couple of sizes too big so he could "grow into them." In the meantime, he was forced to wear "corduroy pants that fastened just under my chin ... sporting wool sweaters that could comfortably house an evangelical revival meeting ... shoes that looked like they were originally owned by a circus clown..."
As an adult, Fussell is obsessed with death. He eventually merges this obsession with the Internet craze, developing an "instant obituary" database of celebrities who, due to their lifestyles, are destined to die prematurely. The resulting wealth and free time allow Fussell to devote his life to writing the definitive biography of his favorite president, the misunderstood, underappreciated and largely forgotten Millard Fillmore. He is encouraged in this endeavor by his psychiatrist, Alphonso K. Wang, who epitomizes the adage, "Physician, heal thyself."
Wang also persuades Fussell to start dating again, several years after his disastrous, short-lived marriage to Daisy Crane. They had become reacquainted at their 10 year high school reunion; she was impressed by his metamorphosis into a handsome, intellectual Mercedes owner. Meanwhile she had transformed from Fussell's schoolboy image of perfection into a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, gambling, foul-mouthed gold-digger. They married after a brief courtship; within a few months, she showed her true colors, running off with an old boyfriend and the Mercedes. In divorce papers, she cited mental cruelty and won an eight million dollar settlement.
Fussell was devastated. "How could a man of my erudition and insight have been such a consummate fool? Could it have been that thing called love? The many splendored thing? That monumental pile of rubbish?"
No one is more surprised than Fussell when he meets a woman, literally by accident, at Dr. Wang's annual patient picnic and a relationship soon develops. A few chapters later, we and Fussell discover the woman's identity, a twist that adds to the absurdity. Along the way, we also learn some shocking truths about Fussell's family, including the existence of a half-brother.
Blumenthal is a master at telling tales of the truly dysfunctional. Although each character in Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour is quirkier than the next, readers will undoubtedly find themselves saying about at least one of them, "I know someone just like that!"
Once again, Blumenthal has taken a story about human beings and all their idiosyncrasies and turned it into a novel idea. Pun intended. | October 2004
Mary Ward Menke is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The Toastmaster, Dog Fancy and Science of Mind magazines, in the Suburban Journals (a weekly St. Louis community newspaper) and on STLtoday.com. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and two dogs. Her Web site is www.writeupuralley.com.