Stephen McCauley's 'You Only Call When You're in Trouble'

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Saturday March 2, 2024
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Author Stephen McCauley
Author Stephen McCauley

Stephen McCauley is a master of the comedy of manners genre, producing a novel usually every five years, since his first bestseller "The Object of My Affection" in 1987. All his work follows a similar pattern. A gay professional white male is having a crisis, dissatisfied with his life, usually both privately and at work. He has straight friends/relatives who are also struggling, but attempt to help the protagonist.

Throughout the book, the latest cultural trends are gently satirized with witty dialogue and droll, keen observations on human nature, especially our foibles (i.e. "When someone starts by telling you you can do 'whatever you want,' they end up forcing you to do what they tell you.").

McCauley excels in writing about the everyday, because he believes people reveal themselves when they are dealing with the small details and inconsistencies of their daily lives. In one sense, not much happens in his narratives, yet in a deeper way, everything changes. Affection, commitment, self-interest, and contentment are perennial themes with characters trying to find their true selves.

The resolution usually involves the character undergoing some reevaluation, invariably discovering poignantly and tenderly that family, home, and friendship are keys to his well-being. He undergoes some low-key transformation, more astute now as to his flaws, so his novels end on a bittersweet note of ambiguity.

Author Stephen McCauley  

Tiny houses
McCauley's eighth book, "You Only Call When You're In Trouble," follows this template again, but is not formulaic, with new shibboleths to slay.

The novel opens with hippie/free spirit, flighty Dorothy embarking on a risky venture, opening the expensive, over-budgeted Omega Institute, a retreat center in Woodstock, New York (yes, that Woodstock). Her business partner is bullyish, opportunistic self-help ("the politically acceptable cousin of religion") guru Fiona Snow, whose book, "The Nature of Success in Successful Natures," was briefly a bestseller after Oprah commented on it.

Dorothy neither plans ahead nor worries about the future. She asks her 30-something daughter Cecily to the gala opening in the hope of passing a legacy to her. After decades of lying, she'll also disclose the long-hidden identity of Cecily's father.
Dorothy has also summoned her 63-year-old brother Tom, a gay architect, who's been her emotional and financial anchor and Cecily's codependent surrogate father figure. He's always put himself second to their needs.

Unhappily aging, Tom has reached the pinnacle of his career by designing a tiny-house masterpiece ("guesthouses for suburban couples with money and marital issues") to his wealthy clients Charlotte Morley and Oliver Fuchs, both long-time friends of Dorothy. Charlotte wants to add a second story, opposed by Tom, but favored by his boss. "Part of an architect's job was to praise the client's brilliance, while showing them they were delusional."

If Tom declines her request, he'll be fired. To complicate life further, his long-term boyfriend Alan, tired of always playing second fiddle to Cecily, dumps him and moves out. Tom tries to win him back, despite his doubts about marriage. "Monogamy was as unsustainable and unhealthy as a raw food diet and, in the case of male couples, as cloying as matching sweaters."

Life choices
Meanwhile, Cecily is facing a Title IX investigation at Deerpath College outside Chicago where she's an American Studies professor. She's accused of having a relationship with Lee, a student who forcibly kissed her, yet despite making those advances, Lee now accuses Cecily of sexual assault.

She's suspended from her job while the charges are investigated. Her boyfriend Santosh stands by her, but his prudish Indian mother threatens to banish him from the family if he stays with her. All three main characters are messes, deft at avoidance behavior. Will their lives collapse or come together?

Ultimately, the book revolves around Tom's observation, "At a certain point, you have to accept that your life is the choices you've made." The question becomes how much are we willing to give up, no matter the personal cost, to help others, especially family which can drive one crazy or exasperating relationships?

McCauley shines at showing us the randomness of life, those unpredictable coincidences that can alter our lives, for good or bad, but also reveal the grey areas where our choices can be unpalatable at best. Yet it's in this ambiguity and handling dysfunction where our best selves emerge. But even when he's criticizing maladaptive behavior, he does so with empathy in his characterizations, fundamentally asserting that despite our shortcomings, we do need each other to thrive.

And once those choices are accepted, McCauley continues, "You better learn to be happy with them." Somehow notwithstanding their flaws, Tom, Dorothy, and Cecily do find fulfillment with their decisions, especially the care and compassion they bestow on each other.

With McCauley's trademark breezy dialogue, shrewd cultural observations ("Gray hair and CVs make for an inherently embarrassing combination, like condoms and senior discounts"), hard-won insights, and laugh out loud aphorisms ("He was in a nail-biting race with the planet to see which of them died first"), this moving and bewitching novel will lift your mood, inspiring you to want to be a better person.

McCauley is at the apex of his extraordinary gifts. You might genuinely be sad to see it end, realizing you will have to wait another five years to get your fix of McCauley's delicious, smart, thrilling social comedy.

'You Only Call When You're In Trouble' by Stephen McCauley. Henry Holt and Company/MacMillan, $27.99

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