At the beginning of Steven Rowley’s third novel, The Guncle, Patrick O’Hara’s life is a little too quiet. Only a few years ago, he was a sitcom star with his own catchphrase who was recognized wherever he went. Now he has exiled himself to Palm Springs, California, seeing no one.
But then Patrick’s sister-in-law, Sara, dies after being ill for three years. Sara was Patrick’s best friend in college before she married his brother, Greg. At the funeral, Greg reveals his addiction to painkillers and asks if Patrick will take his kids for the summer while Greg goes to rehab. Patrick resists, finding the notion preposterous, but after a surprising moment of connection, he and his niece and nephew agree on the visit.
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Patrick’s not quite equipped to parent the bereft 9-year-old Maisie and 6-year-old Grant, who in turn are mystified by their GUP’s life. (GUP: Gay Uncle Patrick, soon amended to “Guncle.”) Rowley spins Grant’s first terrified encounter with Patrick’s fancy Japanese toilet into a lovely, funny scene, and such comic misunderstandings pepper the novel. Maisie and Grant take Patrick’s snark, zingers and pop culture-laden wit literally, repeatedly reminding their uncle that they don’t understand what he’s talking about.
Patrick tries to bring color and light into his niece’s and nephew’s lives, aiming to serve as an exuberant Auntie Mame, but he’s grieving, too. When he begins to share his memories of Sara and to ponder his midlife self-exile, he connects more deeply with Maisie and Grant, which allows him to consider returning to his old life and to rethink his own sibling relationships.
The Guncle does wonderful work with its youngest characters. Patrick’s exchanges with Grant and Maisie are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, even as they reveal two kids at different stages of development and grief. The novel's light touch extends to its secondary characters, including Patrick's neighbors and old friends.
Never going too dark, The Guncle is a sweet family story that offers an unexpected yet inevitable ending.