Everyone knows at least one dream couple: two charming people with magnetic personalities who complement each other perfectly. Their perfect relationship draws admiration, and not a little envy, from their friends; their joint charisma makes them the envy of every dinner party.
Stan and Karen, the couple at the heart of Marcia Butler's novel Pickle's Progress, are not that couple. They are the opposite of that couple. If they ever met that couple, both couples would cancel each other out, in one of those matter-antimatter situations. And while they may be a nightmare, Butler somehow manages to make them — and the two people who find themselves in their orbit — the bizarrely charming heart of her surprising and audacious debut novel.
Pickle's Progress opens with Stan and Karen, both kind of high-functioning alcoholics who run an architecture and design firm together, on their way back to Manhattan from a dinner party held by some "annoyingly sober" friends. Luckily, the drunken Karen isn't driving; unluckily, the equally drunken Stan is. When they spy a woman in distress standing in the middle of the George Washington Bridge, Stan swerves to avoid her, causing a crash that results in minor injuries to both of the booze-sodden New Yorkers.
The woman on the bridge, it turns out, is named Junie, and she has just witnessed her boyfriend leap to his death. Horrified by the revelation, but reluctant to get the authorities involved, the couple calls Pickle, a New York police officer who happens to be Stan's twin brother. Pickle helps Stan avoid being jailed on a DUI charge and takes Junie in for questioning.
Karen, in the grip of a sudden and uncharacteristic bout of sympathy, invites Junie to stay with the couple at their brownstone. This should irritate Pickle — he's the co-owner of the property, and his brother and sister-in-law have repeatedly promised to renovate its top two floors so he can move in. But he finds himself infatuated with Junie in all her wounded manic-pixie-dream-girlness; he's charmed by "her inability to bear the sway of her world, when her lungs were about to explode from grief."
Months pass by, and Pickle awkwardly courts Junie, while a newly sober Stan and Karen try to keep their business afloat, all the while attempting to keep an embittered Pickle at bay. As the novel progresses, the reader learns that none of the relationships are quite what they seem, and there's much more to the twin brothers' past than meets the eye.
There are more than a few reasons why Pickle's Progress shouldn't work. Stan, Pickle and Karen are, initially, anyway, a uniquely hateful triad, while Junie comes across as a wounded doe of a character, all beautiful, tragic and candy-sweet. Several scenes seem ripped from a soap opera. But the novel succeeds because of Butler's slyness — she's aware of the book's melodrama and even alludes to it at times (like when Stan and Karen stop fighting long enough to watch reruns of their favorite show, Dallas).
And while Junie never quite breaks out of her sad ingénue mold, Butler renders the other three protagonists with surprising depth. Karen and Stan start out as a Martha-and-George-style nightmare couple: "That's just how their relationship felt — sharp and sometimes dangerous," Butler writes. "Yet strangely alive as they explored those moments, when one or the other might lunge forward and twist that bright, cold metal a tad, then deftly retract the sword. The trick was to know how far to penetrate the dagger, and how long it could linger without bleeding out the heart."
And yet Butler reveals a hidden sweetness in both of them. She does this very subtly, just enough to disarm the reader — neither character ever fully abandons their essential jerkiness, but they both become slightly more sympathetic as the book progresses.
The most successful part of the novel, though, is the relationship between "ghost twins" Stan and Pickle, neither of whom really understands the other. The characters are both alarming for different reasons — Stan is an obsessive-compulsive milquetoast with an assortment of phobias; Pickle is a borderline sociopath with a hair-trigger temper. Butler examines the roots of their troubled relationship through flashbacks, and does so seamlessly. She has a real understanding of the fraught dynamics of sibling relationships, and the way the brothers interact rings true.
Pickle's Progress is a deeply weird novel that succeeds because of Butler's willingness to take risks and her considerable charisma — she's a gifted storyteller with a uniquely dry sense of humor and a real sympathy for her characters, even if they're not traditionally likable. It's not a perfect book, but it's a promising fiction debut from a writer who seems incapable of not going her own way.