annotation by Diane Sherlock
Michael Levin has written an engaging farce drawing on his legal expertise as an attorney to tell the story of a contested will. The Gaines family has been suing each other for decades with the help of two contentious law firms, Shapolsky & Shapolsky versus Shapolsky and Shapolsky. The character names are provided in charts at the beginning of the book which is one of the first problems with the novel. While the charts are helpful, they would not have been necessary in a 347 page book had the author not resorted to cute and redundant names. There are several Sam Gaines and other characters have combinations like Woodrow Wilson Gaines and Charlie Chaplin Gaines that are more silly than useful. To add to the confusion are inconsistent abbreviations such as Sam C, Grover Sam and so on.
The prose itself is average and workmanlike, and although Levin knows how to ratchet up tension within a scene, he does not do so consistently and often undercuts his efforts with look-at-me cleverness. He has no consistent POV character or group of characters who might serve to ground the narrative. The result is that the reader is not aligned with any one particular person in each moment of the text and the narrative takes on the quality of forgettable pop music. The closest character to a grounding presence is Amelia Vanderbilt, the trust officer at the bank that oversees the case at the heart of the book, the $60 million estate of former vaudeville star 92 year old Harry Gaines. Harry left a will with the provision that his family will only inherit his $60 million fortune if they can get along for one month. This situation is full of opportunities for great dialogue, for characters saying no to each other until that no is final, but these opportunities are squandered for the most part. Amelia is not a fully realized female character, reacting out of character and superficially to cheating on her fiancé so that the act becomes just one more plot point rather than fully formed scene.
An authoritative narrator begins the book, but fades in and out of the narrative, mostly out. But the first paragraph is promising:
It is bad form to come right out and express one’s desire than an elderly relative should stop wasting everyone’s time already and pack it in. Those favored with elderly, wealthy relatives, especially if those relatives are perceived in the family as difficult or uncaring, might confess, if they were thoroughly honest, that such uncharitable thoughts have crossed their minds more than once….
Levin comes right out with what’s been going on in the minds of Gaines family members for generations, but his failure to use this voice regularly throughout or as bookends misses another opportunity for a cohesive and powerful story that makes the most of its farcical elements.
Levin’s other big problem is dialogue tags. He not only tells rather than shows throughout, he hits the reader over the head with such tags as ‘he told her matter-of-factly,’ ‘Morris exclaimed,’ and ‘Harry retorted.’
Levin structured the book into thirty-seven chapters in four sections. The sections are titled, Intimate Relations, Undue Influence, Lucid Intervals, and Absolute Dominion. Here again he misses an opportunity to either use consistent probate terms, legal jargon or most appropriately, vaudeville cards as a nod to his opening character and leading decedent. However, he does use a number of old Gaines family letters and many legal documents from decades of lawsuits as his device to reconstruct the family feuds and these are effective tools.
Reading “Alive and Kicking” helped with my current novel in that the legal approach is not appropriate to my material. There is the additional benefit of learning from negative example to beware of excesses in characters names, dialogue tags, and a thick underbrush of modifiers. Despite its flaws, the book has a breezy charm. It is fun and most of the humor comes out of long-standing family feuds and misunderstandings. The other valuable lesson here is that Levin knows when to retreat from acrimony and bitterness in order to allow the reader to enjoy his spoof in which the lawyers, refreshingly (to use one of his numerous adverbs), do not come out ahead.