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Know Your Beholder


Know Your Beholder

KNOW YOUR BEHOLDER, Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Rapp’s latest novel, is the story of a spacious Victorian house in Pollard, Illinois. It is also the story of Francis Falbo, a thirty-something landlord of this home-turned-boarding house, who spends a long winter in the attic, fearful of leaving and absorbing the tragedies of his life.

The Victorian house on Oneida Street, situated between the Schefflers and the Coynes, is Francis’ boyhood home, and has been a refuge from the fierce Illinois blizzards as he survives one day after another. Third Policeman, the musical group formed in his young adult years, practiced in the garage on Oneida Street and has been a touchstone for the four young men. After producing one promising album, Argon Lights, theypainfully failed and disbanded. Thoughts of a reunion go through Francis’ confused mind. The unexpected appearance of the group’s extraordinary drummer, Randall Glose, adds to this longing and helps clarify why the band fell apart originally.

Francis and his wife, Sheila Anne, lived in the house during the time his mother Cordelia was dying from cancer, and he sometimes still hears the sounds of sadness coming from her room. His father remarried and relocated to Florida. But Francis remained in the house after Sheila Anne left him for a well-groomed, up-and-coming work colleague, and they moved to New York. After she left, Francis converted the home to five apartments and does the requisite maintenance. He explains that being a landlord is a perfect profession and has done wonders for his weekly commute budget.

"The loss of His One Great Love is the dominant tragedy of Francis’ life (he has not seen Sheila Anne in 688 days), but his real obstacle has been being held his own hostage. To no surprise from the reader, who has come to care about him very much, finally Francis leaves the house."

Francis was also a columnist for the local alternative weekly, The Pollard Pigeon, but it folded and he could not bring himself to become a blogger. The byline had been good financially and professionally. Francis continues to write in a notebook that he mentions frequently and sketches in the margins: parts of Shelia Anne’s anatomy, the strings on the Les Paul guitar, snowmen. He is unsure of what the manuscript will ultimately become, but believes there will be author secrets.

The first-floor tenants, the Bunches, are former trapeze artists in Ringling Bros. In early January, their three-year-old daughter, Bethany, apparently wandered off in the local Target, and her disappearance has been an ugly event in Pollard. The detective on the case stops by occasionally and questions Francis about their domestic habits. Francis’ alternating compassion and suspicion are part of the ongoing drama in the household. Art student Hannah Glump has a single on the second floor, as does Bradley, Sheila Anne’s younger brother.

There are also two apartments in the basement that Francis rented to a former Olympian and the Kindest Man on Earth, a retired social studies teacher. As the weeks go by, Francis tiptoes more and more into the lives of his tenants, and they, too, into his. The house has maintained its integrity, despite the onslaught of repairs and sheetrock, blizzards of snow and four tornadoes that spring. It has also kept a secret. Francis knows the creaking floors and drafty wicker porch, the stray bricks and curtainless windows, but he has been so consumed with surviving the losses in his life that he missed this piece. He discovers that he is the celebrity of the secret, and he is astonished.

Although Francis is moments away from insanity during much of this winter, proof of which is heartbreaking, sometimes illegal and often funny, the descriptions of his grip on reality ring true. Sheila Anne called and left a message for Francis to check up on Bradley. Listening to her voice, unexpected and sweet and evocative of their marriage, “all but cleansed his soul.” Randall has been to New York City and tells Francis that he saw Sheila Anne walking extremely fast on the street --- like they do in New York --- and he could’ve sworn she was listening to “Know Your Beholder,” a song from Argon Lights. Francis wants to believe it’s true, and he rationalizes that the countless hours Randall (and he) spent recording, mixing and listening to the music made it very possible that he could have heard the song over the cacophony of First Avenue. Francis breathes again. And he believes that no matter how small, “even if that something’s as infinitesimal as a grasshopper’s eye, there’s still a piece of him lost in her.” He needs this truth.

The loss of His One Great Love is the dominant tragedy of Francis’ life (he has not seen Sheila Anne in 688 days), but his real obstacle has been being held his own hostage. To no surprise from the reader, who has come to care about him very much, finally Francis leaves the house. In bits and starts, to be sure, but he leaves. And the house and its secret remain on Oneida Street, Pollard, Illinois.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on March 26, 2015

Know Your Beholder
by Adam Rapp

  • Publication Date: February 16, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 031636892X
  • ISBN-13: 9780316368926