It’s a common comparison: Your odds of being struck by lightning are far better than those of winning the grand jackpot in the lottery. But they’re still quite low, at around one in one million for someone living in the U.S. in any given year (the odds increase over a lifetime). Man Alive!, an intriguing novel by Mary Kay Zuravleff, tells the tale of one man who beats these odds with dramatic consequences.
Dr. Owen Lerner is a successful psychiatrist with a workaholic-like focus on his practice, specializing in children with neurodevelopment disorders such as autism. Summer weeks spent at a Delaware beach house with his family are one of the few times he allows himself to unwind. It’s on the last evening of one such vacation, when he and his wife and three children are on their way to dinner, that the odds of a lightning strike instantly becomes 100% for Owen. As he places a quarter in the parking meter, all the proper elements align . . . and he is literally knocked off his feet.
The Lerner family’s post-lightning-strike implosion makes up the meat of this tale. And meat actually plays a large role, as Owen, in his recovery, becomes obsessed with the art of barbecue—likely as a reaction to the odor of his own burning flesh following the hit. It isn’t just barbecue that consumes him; the euphoria he experiences immediately after being struck leads to a “chasing the dragon” type journey as Owen strives not only to explain those feelings but to bring them back. Suddenly he is as “neuroatypical” as the patients he’s devoted his life to, and this irony is not lost on him.
Owen’s family watches his transformation with both fascination and fear. Wife Toni’s resentment at having to become an instant caretaker to her physically and mentally altered husband is realistically portrayed, although her angst-ridden passages can become tiresome. His college-age twin sons, Ricky and Will, have their own traumatized reactions: Will in particular experiences a downslide that sometimes strains credulity. Teenage daughter Brooke displays a mix of guilt, revulsion and adolescent self-centeredness that is on the mark, but a subplot focused on her unhealthy high-school romance seems extraneous.
Yes, the Lerner family members can be annoying; but who among us can’t relate to irritating relatives? It’s likely that readers will want to complete the journey with a family that, despite their extraordinary circumstances, may remind them very much of their own.