Sister North

by Jim Kokoris

Published by St. Martin's Press

338 pages, 2003




Reviewed by David Abrams


From the first paragraph of Jim Kokoris' Sister North, we understand we're in the hands of a writer who knows how to slap two sentences together and make them funny:

Nine months after his divorce, Sam stopped wearing underwear. It was a practical decision rather than any type of statement. After Carol left him, he remained committed to underwear, thinking it a fundamental part of his life. He worked in a very popular, very conservative Chicago law firm that had a dress code, and while the dress code did not specifically mention underwear, it was definitely implied.

The chuckles snowball from that point onward.

Though Sister North has its share of feel-good syrup drizzled over the narrative, especially near the climax, I walked away from the novel with a smile on my face. Kokoris has a knack for the oddball, off-putting moments that resemble real life, but are always odd enough to exist only in literature or the movies -- sort of like you were looking at your family in a funhouse mirror tilted sideways.

Witness the opening sentence of his previous novel, The Rich Part of Life: "The day we won the lottery I was wearing wax lips that my father had bought for the Nose Picker and me at a truck stop." I bought the book based on that one sentence.

Sister North has an equal share of one-liners that punctuate the novel with all the zany exuberance of Jim Carrey on a good day. For instance, one character says of another, "[He] would probably have my legs decapitated."

The novel centers around 45-year-old Sam Gamett, an exhausted soul who's certainly run the gamut of life by the time we reach the third chapter. Not only is he out of clean underwear, but his wife has left him, he's living in the thin-walled Get Down Motel listening to other couples have sex and an irate customer just walked into his law firm, murdered his secretary, then committed suicide. Sam agonizes over why he was spared. As he sits around the Get Down, he becomes obsessed with the titular nun who has a call-in television show. Sam is looking for a way out of his aimless, ambitionless, indifferent life and Sister North is a signpost. The owl-faced nun preaches the gospel of hope -- that hope can heal even the most broken, jaded heart.

Despite the fact that [Sam's] father had been a minister, he was not a religious person. He didn't believe in God, but he found himself believing in Sister North. Her logic and sincerity made him feel better, made him see hope as a tangible, necessary thing.

Unable to reach her by telephone, Sam decides to pay her a visit at her secluded retreat in tiny, quirky Lake Eagleton, Wisconsin. The novel really takes off as Sam gets to know the residents and the tourists who have pilgrimaged there in search of Sister North. Sam is disappointed to learn that the television nun has mysteriously left town, but he hangs around anyway -- mostly on account of the good-looking waitress Meg, a recluse who keeps her heart locked up tight as a chastity belt.

As everyone awaits the return of Sister North, Sam finds himself falling in love with the seemingly indifferent Meg and soon he's one of those tourists who never seem to leave the town. Everybody who pilgrimages to Lake Eagleton is looking for a second chance in life. Billy Bags, the enigmatic town weirdo (a term which could apply to nearly all residents), tells Sam, "We're all looking for a way out of something."

Most of the folks in this book seem to have wandered over from Hollywood's Central Casting Office -- Charming/Offbeat Division. Though the characters are just a hair's length shy of stereotype, Kokoris keeps the dialogue and prose smart and funny. Heck, it could even get a giggle or two from the Pope. | February 2004


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.