By Jessica E. Lapidus © 2003
Tenzin McGrupp’s third novel, The Blind Kangaroo, is by far, his most profound work to date. In an email written to friend Jerry Engel, McGrupp says,
“I think (The Blind Kangaroo) is my most mature novel yet. I have tried to shy away from some of the outlandish sexual connotations and explicit drug use of the first two novels...”
Indeed, McGrupp’s first two novels, Jack Tripper Stole My Dog, and Sweet Nothing, revolve around over-the-top sex scenes and heavy drug use. The Blind Kangaroo breaks away from that formula. For the first time in Tenzin McGrupp’s novel-writing career, he concentrates on strong character development. Not to say that the characters from his other novels aren’t strong, but those from The Blind Kangaroo are the most diverse.
The Blind Kangaroo tells the story of a week in the life of “The Norwegian Nightmare,” Orsino Fletcher, a 30-year old, former college and Olympic hockey player. In this week, Orsino, known to all simply as Fletch, learns about life from a bathroom book about Buddha, realizes his own purpose, and learns how to let go. He spends time with his girlfriend, Ophelia, and comments on society and its morals (or lack thereof) via his fellow Catholic high school alumni and a through visit to Hollywood, full of realization and revelation.
Others of McGrupp’s critics have mentioned that the women in his stories are “either pregnant, crazy, or both.” In The Blind Kangaroo, his main female characters – Cordelia, Juliet, and Ophelia – are all different, and each complex in her own way. Ophelia is Fletch’s younger girlfriend. It is clear from the beginning that they have deep feelings for each other, but both are too guarded to express them. The underlying tension that comes through in their dialogue and other relations is apparent through the telling of Fletch’s story. Ophelia’s friends, Cordelia and Juliet, are perfect compliments to her and each other, and the three make a charming triumverate of feminine wiles and female intelligence. In one scene, where Fletch is driving to Foxwoods with two of the three girls, he and the bull-headed Cordelia get into an argument, and Cordelia holds her own. In McGrupp’s previous novels, the female characters were so constructed that they might have backed down when confronted by the verbal strength of men the likes of Ivan in JTSMD and Winky in Sweet Nothing. But as I smiled with glee at the barrage of insults flying between Fletch and Cordelia, I realized that in Fletch’s world, he would have had no idea how to handle Kelly and Baby from the aforementioned works. Cordelia, Juliet, and Ophelia, in the ways in which they interact with Fletch – and with each other – are perfectly tailored to the setting and mindset of The Blind Kangaroo.
In McGrupp’s other works, short stories and novels alike, he always seems to be striving for a grand symbolism to be represented by locale – the seedy underbelly of New York City in Jack Tripper Stole My Dog and the white trash life in both Seattle and Alabama in Sweet Nothing – or by characterization. The Blind Kangaroo is not lacking this symbolism, but it seems to be a lot effortlessly illustrated, and much more subtle. In the story, Fletch is struggling with his history as an Olympic hockey player, the fame of which seems to be a haunting burden to him, while for others, it is a mark of local and national pride. Fletch hides from it, while every other character in the story, it seems, is striving for his or her own recognition. Ophelia is a struggling actress, many of his fellow high school alumni have made or are trying to make names for themselves in the world, and even the people Fletch meets on his trip to Hollywood seem to be searching for themselves, for their place in the world – or at least at their parties.
Aside from the complexites of McGrupp’s female characters, the other players in The Blind Kangaroo are also exciting and different. While some of his fans may argue that the locations and the characterizations are semi-autobiographical, McGrupp admits that his characters are each an amalgam of people he has known and met in his life. Most of the characters get the time they deserve, and when we’ve seen the last of them (in this volume, at least), the timing of their departure is perfect. The one character who doesn’t seem to linger long enough is Adriana, the personal assistant to Ophelia’s Hollywood-producer father, Duncan. Adriana is the most developed character with the least face time. She appears only in the last two chapters of The Blind Kangaroo and while the story covers it’s points in its seven, full, comprehensive chapters, Adriana’s presence makes the case for the continuation. I recently spoke with McGrupp, and he tells me that there is a chance that we will see Adriana again, perhaps in a story of her own.
Another character who makes a far too short appearance is Imogen, the Icelandic flight attendant who Fletch meets while living in Denmark. The story of the relationship between Fletch and Imogen takes place in the past, and the way McGrupp tells the story is with love and passion. The telling of the tale of their love affair seems a moment of calm in the whirlwind of Orsino Fletcher’s life. Their story and its aftermath barely lasts a whole chapter, and leaves the reader wanting more from Imogen and the passionate affect she has had on our hero.
The final two chapters are set in Hollywood, where Fletch puts into practice the things he has learned from reading the bathroom book about Buddha. He speaks honestly and candidly with Duncan, Ophelia’s father, and also with Ophelia, to whom he finally opens his heart. The major concept of Buddha’s teachings is to let go of all attachments, and that is exactly what Fletch is able to do by the time we get to the end of the week. He goes from being hung-up and obsessed with his fame, to being free of its implied burdens, and getting down to what is important in his life: respect and love. And keeping with the theme of strong women, the one who seals his realization is Ophelia, who points out,
“...as much as everyone is focused on the Norwegian Nightmare, you always took the time to tell me how lucky you were to be wherever, with the most beautiful woman in the room.”
Her statement speaks of the message in The Blind Kangaroo, which is appreciation for the things around you – from generously tipping a waitress to playing in the fall leaves in New York’s Central Park – and having less attachment to the things in your life by which you have felt burdened, but that you know will fade just as the moments.
All in all, The Blind Kangaroo is, by far, Tenzin McGrupp’s mature, real-life novel. It is not only about fame and celebrity, and the struggles therein, but also about relationships with others and with the self, and learning about life through life.
Jessica E. Lapidus is a writer from Jersey City. She is also the assistant editor of Truckin'.
December 24, 2003
A Novel Review: The Blind Kangaroo
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