Book Review: The First Bad Man

Leo P. Neufeld
3 min read
The Center of Her Own World
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Miranda July’s first novel, The First Bad Man, is the story of Cheryl “The Human Torpedo” Glickman. Just kidding: Cheryl Glickman has no exciting nickname because her way of life is not very exciting. Cheryl is in her forties, but she seems even older. She works for a nonprofit called Open Hand, an organization where all the men wear pastel-colored sweaters. Cheryl has a rare stress-related throat problem called globus hystericus. Her love interest is a misogynist. Cheryl keeps tabs on what’s important to her even when things are not going her way. She doesn’t know martial arts.

Until Clee enters the picture. The daughter of Cheryl’s boss, Clee is a smelly houseguest who wears pink nylon pants. Cheryl welcomes Clee at first, but the situation goes way south way fast. Cheryl’s guest, it turns out, is a young prostitute. Clee becomes hellbent on making Cheryl tougher through impromptu self-defense lessons.

Naturally, Cheryl is dumbstruck. As she puts it, “She wasn’t the first bad man ever but the first I’d ever met who had long blonde hair and pink velour pants.”

Suddenly Cheryl finds herself losing control over her life. The accompanying action is resplendent with July’s standard repertoire: tons of whispering, wildly romantic conversation, strange love and extremely considerate towel preparation. I was often struck by the visceral yet simple beauty of the novel. It’s at its best when it dips in and out of Cheryl’s stream of consciousness, interlacing the hypnotic rhythms of Cheryl’s mind with anticlimactic reflections. Consider the first three lines of the novel’s second chapter:

"I was woken early by the sound of limbs falling in the backyard.

It took thirty millimeters of red and listened to the labored sawing.

It was Rick, the homeless gardener who came with the house."

As in all of July’s work,
The First Bad Man grinds the edge between comedy and tragedy so hard that the book should split in two. However, like her short stories and feature films, The First Bad Man doesn’t split. It stands as a sturdy monument to the strangest forms of redemption.

“I wondered how many other women had sat on this toilet and stared at the floor. Each of them the center of their own world, all of them yearning for someone to put their love into so they could see their love, see that they had it.”

The fumbling and bumbling of humanity is not beautiful on its own, but it is a crucial part of the equation. July has to tell the whole awkward story of Cheryl Glickman, without flinching, to show how triumph is always possible. As July’s novel unfolds, she never strays from her minimalistic approach. As a result, she only needs 267 pages of rich writing to tell what many authors think they need a thousand pages, or more, to say. We should be thankful to have a writer like her among us. Let’s hope that
The First Bad Man is Miranda July’s first great novel of many, and that she continues her wondrous habit of delving into new artistic forms.
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