Author discovery is a beautiful thing. What makes it so exciting – and rewarding – is when you come across one of the species that you classify as a literary soul mate. You connect with their style, characters, plot, humor and message. You relate to the world they create and the time and place in which they create it. You grab their next book the day it comes out.
I’m sensing I might have a new author to add to my list, and you’ve likely never heard of him. His name is Max Mobley. His debut novel Howard & Debbie (Rare Bird Books) checks off all the boxes for me. I found myself running to my wife reading her memorable passages from what starts out as a disturbing storyline and settles into a thrilling, heart-wrenching, hilarious tale with two of the most unappealing and unattractive protagonists you’ll ever meet.
There’s plenty of warmth, wit and wisdom – but first, the weirdness.
In the early days of the internet, receiving clerk Howard Feck, a loner and loser, enters a pornographic chat room and privately “dates” a girl known as Lil_Debbie, a.k.a. Deborah Fairchild. The “utter lack of love and companionship in his life was earned and awarded for being..for being…well, for being born Howard Feck.”
Howard thinks he is falling in love with this virtual partner and concocts a plan, based on information garnered via 35 online “dates,” to meet Debbie in person.
Deborah Fairchild is the chat room persona of Debbie Coomb, who, due to life circumstances many beyond her control, has become a lonely, violent, 350-pound monster sociopath who lures people to her home and they never leave. Her running mantra is revenge – on the people responsible for her current station and those standing in the way of her path to redemption.
She has a mean streak – oh does she ever. She seemingly discovers it by accident, verbally abusing a helpless housekeeper. “Debbie knew she was being cruel and hurtful, and within her pain she was fine with that – no, not just fine, invigorated. It scratched quite a mean itch, and Debbie immediately wanted to scratch some more.”
Violence and meanness aside, her troubled adolescence is reminiscent of the 257-pound protagonist Dolores Price in Wally Lamb’s brilliant She’s Come Undone, beached like a whale in front of a TV with an assortment of junk food. In fact, so often through Mobley’s unusual ride, the writing reminds me of Lamb in its tone and descriptions.
A strange thing happens when Howard shows up in Debbie’s real world. While he is captured, confined and tortured by Debbie, perhaps with intent to kill, she doesn’t kill him. They actually learn to co-exist, a result of Howard’s innocence and acceptance of her treatment of him, which defies logic – although Mobley does an incredible job of getting into the characters’ heads and trying to explain it. The relationship reaches a stage where the two contemplate an odd marriage and family.
At this point, Mobley is just warming up. If characters remind me of Lamb, the overall quirkiness of the story brings flashes of John Irving. You’ll laugh and cry yourself to the finish.
Along the way, Mobley adds memorable bit players, notably Dr. Mati, a smart, sensitive, take-charge physician who is appalled by Debbie’s behavior but nonetheless looks to make the best of the circumstances; and Jammin’ Dave, a hospital attendant with enough tattoos to cover his body but not his heart.
Some of Mobley’s descriptions win the day:
- The pathetic Howard at work: “His boss once told him he would make a great beta tester for Murphy’s Law.”
- A second round of violence from Debbie despite being seriously injured: “As if Debbie was some slasher flick villain who could overcome life-threatening injuries in the name of the sequel.”
- The effect of a baby’s newness and unfamiliarity to Howard: “Like electricity to the guitar, Virginia changed Howard in a big way.”
- The poor quality of hospital food: “Seemed as though they were prepared in a Suzy EZ-bake oven.”
- Howard taking a physical beating from Debbie: “To make matters worse, he appeared to have taken self-defense lessons from the Three Stooges.”
In Howard & Debbie, Max Mobley has written the perfect book for me: weird but sensitive characters; fast-moving plot; plenty of surprises; and a precise injection of humor to balance some gripping moments.
I loved this book. Not one regret — and thank goodness for that, because as Mobley writes, “Regret is the one thing you take with you to the other side.”
Howard & Debbie is now available for purchase.
About Max Mobley
Max Mobley writes from his home in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He is a former columnist for the pioneering music magazine, “Crawdaddy.” He has written extensively for the music industry, including magazine features, reviews, interviews, and books on music technology. Max also penned the popular Rush biography, Rush FAQ – All That’s Left to Know About the World’s Greatest Canadian Prog Rock Power Trio. Max contributed to the Santa Cruz Sentinel series “Rock of Ages,” honoring the 50th anniversary of the birth of rock and roll. He also wrote the limited series “The Chief and I” for the Tracy Press.