The five protagonist-narrators of Joey Goebel's first novel, The Anomalies, are more unlikely a quintet than even Jerry Springer's or Jenny Jones' maddest bookers could hope to find, so defiantly contrived that the reader could never mistake them for real people. Either that, or they will be immediately recognized as bearing uncanny resemblances to family members and neighbors. Set in small-town mid-America, The Anomalies is a likable paean to abnormality, tracing the lives of five friends as they confront the semioppressive conventions of straight society and attempt to get a gig for their band, which dresses like Earth, Wind and Fire and plays "power pop new wave heavy metal punk rock music" with a soupçon of soul.
The bandmates: Luster, a voluble autodidact who lives with his crack-dealing brothers and dreams of transforming the world with his music; Opal, a sex-crazed octogenarian whose daughters hope to have her committed; Ember, the angriest 8-year-old alive; Ray, an Iraqi national trying to find the GI he shot during Gulf War I in order to beg his forgiveness; and Aurora, a sex bomb in a wheelchair whose interest in Satan worship has had the desired effect of annoying her not-as-liberal-as-he-thinks father, a minister. In précis, each--and, by extension, the book they inhabit--is a bad joke, fodder for one of those grim Saturday Night Live sketches conceived only to fill out the last 40 minutes of the show. They all have an undeniably eccentric charm, however, and over the course of the novel assume an organic substantiveness that gives The Anomalies genuine vitality.
Each of the five narrates the story by turns, along with a host of nameless walk-ons identified in high allegorical style only by their profession or their relation to the protagonists: Boss, Father, Therapist, Customer, God. Goebel's gift for dialogue is evident throughout. Whether scripting Luster's intricate riffs laced with literary allusions, pop culture name-checks, and biblical exhortations, Opal's Golden Girls Gone Wild come-ons and put-downs, or Aurora's bitter witticisms ("If I had eyes in place of nipples, I'd be losing a staring contest right now"), he crafts unique cadences and assigns distinctive vocabularies to what becomes a large and heterogeneous cast.
Like John Waters' recent films, though, The Anomalies is just too damned pleasant; it could have used more of an edge, a little nastiness maybe, to make its point more effectively. But if there's nothing particularly subversive about this revolt against the "Conspiracy of Mediocrity" that, according to Luster, dampens our individualistic life force, it's an enjoyable, often funny account of misfits making their way in a world that would be duller without them.