By turns hilarious and bittersweet, Andy Mozina’s winning debut novel introduces a charming new hero for our times: a dysfunctional, divorced family man whose passion for life comes straight from the harp.
Matthew Grzbc is a talented musician who plays the concert harp. He is a divorced dad who lives in Chicago, has a sexy girlfriend, and has a major, potentially life-changing audition with an orchestra on the horizon. At least that’s how he appears on paper. But take a closer look and a very different man starts to emerge: an obsessive, self-sabotaging Midwesterner, fumbling through his relationship with his curiously neurotic six-year-old daughter and headed for destruction in his romantic life by grasping at any remotely affectionate warm body, including that of his ex-wife. Instead of playing to sold-out concert halls, he spends his days plucking out “Send in the Clowns” at hotel brunches, and his weekends serenading the captive audience at the local hospice.
When his father dies unexpectedly (while listening to a meditation tape), Matt’s life begins to come untethered. In quick succession his ex-wife gets engaged, his girlfriend begins to pull away, and his daughter starts acting out. With his audition rapidly approaching, Matt is paralyzed by panic—why can’t he hold it together and follow his dream? And what does that even mean, if you’re not sure what it is you really want?
Funny, poignant, and thoroughly engaging, Contrary Motion is a journey deep inside a male mind as it searches—desperately—for a way to balance life, love, and a harp.
Praise for Contrary Motion
“Mozina’s finely detailed, painfully funny novel is a rollicking performance that will keep readers on the edge of their seats.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Mozina has created a likeable, believable main character, the sort of guy alongside whom you could easily spend hours dissecting life over a couple of beers. It’s the first novel for Mozina, . . . and it’s sure to leave readers asking for more. Mozina’s storytelling is easy and humorous, taking the stuff of everyday life and presenting it in a way that both entertains and draws out emotion.”—BookPage
“Standing between world-class harpist Matt Grzbc and his dream, a permanent position in a top orchestra, is just about everybody in his life. This brilliant debut novel zigzags across Chicago’s neighborhoods, exploring the obsession a striving artist must have for his craft, as he also makes a living and nourishes those near him, especially his eccentric and precocious six-year-old daughter. Contrary Motion is a wonderful story—beautifully written, hilarious, tortured, and filled with heavenly music.”—Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of National Book Award finalist American Salvage
“Charming . . . The painfully self-aware Matt has a great sense of humor, but his comic insights don’t help him much as he faces a confounding array of personal problems. . . . The pleasures of [Mozina’s] writing never flag.”—Kirkus Reviews
“No portrait of an artist brings alive vulnerability, hilarity, desperation, hipness, absurdity, and painful steadfastness as splendidly as Andy Mozina’s Contrary Motion. A dazzling, unforgettable novel.”—Mark Wisniewski, author of Watch Me Go
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Andy Mozina is a professor of English at Kalamazoo College and the author of the short story collections The Women Were Leaving the Men, which won the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, and Quality Snacks, which was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Prize. His fiction has also appeared in numerous magazines, including Tin House and McSweeney’s. He lives in Michigan with his wife and daughter.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I’m a Midwesterner, born and raised in Milwaukee, where they manufacture beer and the heavy machinery you should not operate while drinking it. The youngest son of a civil engineer and a nurse, with four brothers and two sisters, I was a large but inert child in a subdivision crawling with three--sport athletes, Eagle Scouts, and kick--the--can prodigies. I grew to be six feet one, cube--headed, block--shouldered, an average white male with no vowels in my last name, and I fell in love with the harp, of all things. I chose a musician’s life, which has proved difficult because at every moment—-and for reasons I’m still trying to understand—-I go about my business with a deep--seated sense that I am about to fail. This has undermined me both as a harpist and as a person, not to mention as an American.
Nevertheless, for twenty--five years now, I’ve dedicated myself to winning a principal harp chair in a top--drawer orchestra. I moved to Chicago, got educated, degreed, and married, had a daughter—-Audrey—-and finally, sixteen months ago, drove my wife, Milena, into divorcing me. Shortly thereafter, the truck that carried me away from my family and our drafty but close--to--the--lake apartment ejected me to the curb on Rockwell Street in Humboldt Park, where rents are low, car windows are occasionally smashed, and, in warm weather, young men hang out on the stoops with live snakes wrapped around their shoulders.
After regrouping for a year, I met a smart and attractive woman and, against all odds, managed to build a relationship with her that is approaching the crucial four--month mark. Cynthia is a lawyer, short and feisty, very like a gymnast, with a fantastic crinkly--eyed smile and somewhat anxious ways. To be honest, I haven’t totally hit my stride with her—-maybe because I want to please her so badly—-but things definitely have the potential to get serious. In fifty-seven days, I have an audition with the St. Louis Symphony. Since my maniacal practice habits were part of my downfall with Milena, I’m on my guard against making the same mistakes. Luckily, Cynthia is somewhat of a work fiend herself and no stranger to crazy, high--pressure deadlines.
Topping all this, with the suddenness of an earthquake that has me feeling around for familiar objects in its aftermath, my father died three days ago. Because he had been battling a stubborn prostate cancer for about eight months, his heart attack has come as a surprise.
In the days since, his death has shifted appearances, making everything sadder, but also clearer, starker. In a sort of post--traumatic stress response to the many harp auditions I’ve endured over the years, I see even the smallest challenge as a make--or--break audition—-from parallel parking to opening the plastic liner in a box of Cheerios without tearing a horrific gash. But this perception has never felt as all--encompassing as it does now. I get the sense that I’m auditioning not only for St. Louis, but for an entirely new life.
It’s the first Wednesday of April, overcast, with the temperature struggling to do a chin--up on the fifty--degree bar. Picking up Audrey to take her to my father’s wake, I get buzzed into Near North Montessori and head to the six--to--nine--year--old classroom, where the after--school program has just begun. I spy Audrey potting a tiny plant on a low table. She’s got Milena’s pale green eyes and straight black hair—-cut short because she prefers tomboy to girlie--girl right now—-but her nose and mouth echo my own. Milena and I will always be together in our daughter’s face, which is comforting and also at times pretty much unbearable. As I approach, I see she’s spilled a fair amount of loamy dirt on the table, on the small chair she stands in front of, and on the carpet.
“Stay up, you stupid plant!” she says. She presses down too hard near the base of the stem, tilting the plant toward her.
“Hey, sweetie,” I say. I feel an aching desire to fold her into myself, to let her step into me, like a violin slipped into its case, to what purpose I do not know.
“This plant won’t stay up.”
“It’s all right,” I say.
She growls and pushes the orange plastic pot away from her. The stem leans over a landscape of her violent fingerprints in soil.
Aggravation sets in as I try to clean up before one of the overworked teachers gets involved: finding the broom and dustpan for the dirt Audrey spilled, dampening paper towels for the finer residue, leaving black smudges on the carpet because damp paper towels were a very bad idea, ruing the curious location of this gardening operation, getting a headrush from stooping and standing, directing Audrey’s clumsy movements, encouraging her so she doesn’t melt down. I can’t help thinking about my own father’s impatience, which I see in myself, and which I’m desperately trying to escape one instant at a time.
I sign Audrey out, then we go to her locker, which contains her coat, splotchy homeward--bound artwork on crinkled paper, a clay bug with a painted body and pipe--cleaner legs—-I can tell that one of its plastic bubble eyes will not adhere for long—-and the stuffed unicorn she calls her “guy.” There are also two black dresses on a hanger zipped into a see--through dress bag and a backpack full of clothes, courtesy of Milena.
Milena got along surprisingly well with my father, and she had sounded genuinely sad to hear about his passing. “You take care,” she said earnestly when our brief conversation ended.
Milena’s lack of spirituality coupled with her deep belief in shopping and dance clubs had initially made my parents wary of her. I remember being especially nervous at our rehearsal dinner. It took place at a Nob Hill restaurant in San Francisco, in a private room with sea creature murals. I was afraid my mother might slip Milena a pamphlet on the rhythm method while my father insisted on sending her the household budgeting software he’d written. It was also the first time our parents met each other, and Milena’s parents were alarmingly smooth and chic. Shortly after introductions, via a segue known only to him, my father launched into a careful explanation of how the suspension cables transmitted forces on the Golden Gate Bridge. Then he excused himself to get a beer. Near the end of cocktails, Milena found him sitting alone and pulled up a chair. It wasn’t long before she had him laughing and smiling his big smile, the one that showed the gold caps on his back teeth.
After we collect Audrey’s things, she is quiet, pensive. We’re in the hall, heading for the door, so I risk it:
“Sweetie, are you thinking about Grandpa?”
She shakes her head no.
I have no idea how to talk to a six--year--old about death. At least she has almost no sense of what’s proper, so no matter what idiotic things I might say—-“Grandpa’s spirit is in every can of soda we drink!” or “We’re all very angry at God for making it so we die”—-my child probably won’t think less of me.
We get to my ancient red Volvo station wagon, and I open the back door for Audrey. Two--thirds of the split--folding backseat is down to accommodate my harp, on which I’ll perform at my father’s funeral mass, with one--third reserved for Audrey’s car seat.
Audrey’s hands strangle her unicorn. Her brow clouds over. She stands stiffly, tormented by something.
“What’s wrong? Time to get in the car.” I know how I sound: as if I’m intent on beating rush--hour traffic and don’t really care what’s bothering her.
She starts to cry.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?”
“I don’t want to.”
“Don’t want to what?”
“Get in the car!”
“Why not? We’ll probably go super fast.”
“No!” she shrieks, and starts sobbing.
I crouch, put my hand on her back and rub around, comforting her and searching for her “off” switch—-it’s the same motion. Her eyes are squinted shut, her cheeks red. Tears run down her face. Her breaths come in huffs and puffs. My patience gets a miraculous second wind, and I bring her to me in a sideways hug.
“Are you upset about Grandpa, sweetie?” I ask with the side of my face against the back of her head.
“No!” she shouts. “I told you I wasn’t.” I can barely make out these last words, she is crying so intensely, breathing so raggedly.
I release her from the hug, set my hands on her shoulders, and try to understand where all of this is coming from, but she looks down and away. “Okay,” I say. “I’m sorry you’re so upset, but we need to get in the car. We have to go see Grandma.” The freeway is only two blocks away. I can hear traffic getting worse by the second.
“I don’t want to go,” she says, and she sits cross--legged on the sidewalk, hunched over, with her unicorn pulled into her lap.
“I don’t want to tell you.”
“Come on, we have to go. You want me to pick you up and put you in the car?”
“No!” she wails. “You’re making it worse!”
Up and down this street of small, closely packed houses, drapes part and stoopsitters finger their phones. I can see them working it out in their minds: Care or abuse? Parenting or kidnapping?
“Well, why not?” I say. “Please tell me why not, or we’re just stuck here.”
She stifles her tears. “What if we get in an accident?” she asks.
“Audrey, we’ve never been in an accident. I always drive super safe and we’re going to go really slow on the freeway.” Thousands more cars are filling the northbound lanes as we speak.
“I don’t want to have an accident,” she says piteously. “I want to stay with Mama!”
My child is not normal. My child does not approach the world in a reasonable way. And it’s probably my fault. Audrey has always been on the weepy and high--strung side, but the divorce has made her needier and more babyish. Despair, disbelief, and rage boil together. I sense my eyes beginning to pinwheel.
“Sweetie, we’re going to Grandpa’s funeral in Milwaukee. Grandpa’s dead, it’s very serious.”
“I’m not going!”
Rapidly, with my voice rising, I say, “We have to go, so let’s get in the car!”
A large woman in a breast--cancer--awareness hoodie stops on the sidewalk across the street. She’s staring, maybe about to say something.
“No,” Audrey wails. “We’re going to get in an accident!”
I’ll give you an accident, I think, but I hear myself saying, “Here, let me give you a hug.” I kneel next to her, envelop her in my arms.
She says, “I don’t want a hug!”
I stand up, and her body rises with mine.
Audrey starts screaming—-“I want Mama! I want Mama!” She kicks my thighs, landing sharp blows.
“Hey, stop kicking me!” I bellow from some place way beyond my control.
She stops everything for a moment, then reverts to crying. This is not her tantrum crying, it’s her “I’m hurt” crying, her “I’m very sad” crying, and it breaks my heart but she physically gives up the fight. I strap her into her car seat and close the door.
In the driver’s seat, my arms are tingling so intensely that I wonder if the steering wheel is electrified. I begin to steady myself and finally pull away from the curb. The woman in the hoodie has been watching us the whole time and has advanced into the street, her face hung up between consideration and disgust. I nearly brush her as I drive off. She touches the car by Audrey’s window—-like a blessing, or maybe she’s affixed a tracking device.
Audrey cries. Audrey cries for a good ten minutes. Of all the sounds the world makes, two of the most distressing to me are Audrey coughing and Audrey crying. While she cries, the three lanes that will become the Edens toward Wisconsin are crawling even worse than I feared, while the three lanes that will go on to become I--90 cruise at near--freeway speed. I look longingly at those lanes, as if they represent some happy alternative life. Our dysfunctional lane accelerates and stops, accelerates and stops, and I gather myself. In a reasonable voice, I apologize for yelling at her and ask her to please stop crying.
But she doesn’t.
“If you don’t stop crying, Audrey, you’re going to distract me so much that we will get in an accident.” The words are out before I think of saying them.
“Then stop it!”
She stops instantly, like she’s been thrown in the water and has to quickly hold her breath. Only a few whimpers are left. She works pathetically hard to control herself.
Though I feel sick to my stomach, I can’t make myself apologize again. And once she has stopped crying, I no longer understand why letting her cry wouldn’t have been okay. It’s suddenly obvious to me how badly I’ve handled this from the beginning.
Then I hear her tiniest voice: “I’m sorry,” she says.
It takes everything I’ve got to keep from putting my head on the steering wheel and closing my eyes.
“No, sweetie,” I finally manage to say, “you’re all right. I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
“That’s okay,” she says.
“You’re a good kid, Audrey. I don’t know if I deserve a kid as good as you.”
“I’m glad we’re going slow,” she says, as if she hasn’t heard me.
After we crawl another mile and a half, I rub my face with both hands and change the subject: “How do you like your new house?”
“Does Mama like it?”
“Yeah, she likes it, but there are too many airplanes.”
“They make a lot of noise and Mama’s friend can’t sleep.”
Mama’s friend is Steve, a securities analyst, and Milena is now living with him in a new house on the Northwest Side. They must be under some flight path to O’Hare. “Can Mama sleep through the planes?”
“I don’t know, but Steve has sensitive hearing.”
“Oh,” I say. “Well, I’m glad you like the house.” I regrip the steering wheel and relax in my seat a bit.
“Steve says Mama has to think sometimes,” Audrey adds.
“And he called her a bad name.”
“Oh, Audrey,” I say, hung up between trying to soothe this turmoil and wanting to see Steve twist in the wind. “Is Steve nice to you?”
“Yeah,” she says. “And he said ‘sorry’ to Mama.”
“He needs to be nice to you guys,” I say. “That’s important.”
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