In an introductory note to her mischievous new work of fiction, Helping Howard, Sally Schloss writes, “This is a novel in which the main character, Howard, helps The Author write a book, and The Author in turn helps Howard understand his marriage.”
That’s the distilled storyline of Schloss’ multilayered work, a book that’s at once a funny, fizzy rom-com; a tense, discomfiting family drama; and an act of full-on narrative experimentation. Helping Howard is a novel about novel-writing that explores the strange partnership that can arise between author and character over the course of composition.
Throughout the book, Schloss’ avatar, the Author, banters with her lead creation, Howard, about plot options, the introduction of new characters and other decisions that go into the building of a book, and their often comic, surprisingly poignant exchanges (italicized in the narrative) lay bare the creative process. A 53-year-old drummer from Brooklyn, Howard is, for the most part, handsome and appealing: “Women liked him. For awhile.” (“Why for awhile? What’s wrong with me?” Howard asks The Author. “That’s for me to know and you to find out,” she replies.) Howard’s younger wife, T.J.—a lesbian who, in the midst of their marriage, seeks out other lovers—works as a professional photographer. Caught in the middle of this uncomfortable arrangement is the couple’s distant teenage daughter, Sinclair.
As she chronicles the stages of Howard’s marriage, Schloss skillfully shifts points of view, writing from the perspectives of T.J. and Sinclair. She supplies well-developed backstories for the main protagonists and in richly realized domestic episodes captures the intimacies and estrangements, ruptures and reconciliations that can make or break a marriage.
The dialogue between Howard and the Author complements the book’s larger storyline without feeling heavy-handed or precious. The result is a deeply human exploration of how decisions and desires can impact a life. With Helping Howard, Schloss has crafted a novel of narrative daring and creative risk. Thanks to her many gifts as a writer, the risk pays off.