You may remember Millard Kaufman from his funny, crass, and wise Bowl of Cherries. In Misadventure, he returns to his study of embitttered, too-smart-for-their-own-good protagonists in a world of absurdities populated by a cast of nutjobs. While Misadventure doesn’t quite live up to the potential Bowl of Cherries set forth, it retains the comic charm and strong sense of humanity that makes Kaufman’s writing so distinct and enjoyable. Misadventure is a dastardly good read with more than a few things to tell us about how to get on in a world changing around us.
Kaufman loves to place just-relatable-enough characters far out of their depth. Misadventure’s protagonist, the adulterous Jack Hopkins, is a developer in LA’s shady real estate world. On one affair, he meets a gorgeous (and gorgeously wealthy) woman who offers him ten million dollars to kill her thick-headed, possessive husband. Before Hopkins can decide to take her up on the offer or not, her husband privately offers to same amount of money to kill his wife.
Misadventure is noir through and through, but in a charmingly self-conscious way that makes all the grit and grime elicit chuckles along the way, like a Raymond Chandler story. Kaufman is a humorist first and foremost, and this novel doesn’t disappoint. The people Hopkins meets along his descent into the criminal underworld aren’t quite caricatures, but they are playful exaggerations of themselves. While they take themselves so seriously, we can’t help but laugh a little.
Hopkins himself is also a rich source of humor as the narrator—and thus Kaufman’s mouthpiece—for the brilliantly articulated paragraphs of invective that define Kaufman’s style. No one—not even Kurt Vonnegut—knows how to kvetch like Kaufman. He has an ear for the shape and texture of words and a taste for exotic vocabulary, the result of which is a poetry of invective that delights the ear and makes this novel something of an aesthetic wonder.
It’s not all fun and games though. Misadventure is also a meditation about the impact of one’s surroundings on his personal identity. Hopkins begins the novel as your average upper middle-class LA philanderer, but as he descends into the criminal underworld just a few hair-widths beneath everyday society, the people he meets and the situations he finds himself in transform him into something else. As more and more people think of him as a hitman, so a hitman he becomes, and his previous identity becomes all but irretrievable. What this means for the stability of his personality and sense of self is left to the reader to decide thanks to Hopkins’s plentiful personal interludes. His anxiety over what he is becoming haunts the novel from start to finish, elevating it from comic wonder to fully-rendered novel.
Misadventure is also less cartoonish than Bowl of Cherries, which may be its undoing. The characters are a little less funny, the plot much less absurd, the clash between high suspense and low comedy less pronounced. As a result, it doesn’t soar to the same comic heights and feels somewhat lacking. But that’s only by comparison. Misadventure is still a well-rounded, intelligent, viciously funny novel with a unique take on how to stay who you are when everything about you changes.