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Adam Ross' 'Mr. Peanut' blends unlikely elements to create a unique crime novel

| Sunday, June 27, 2010

Like most novels, "Mr. Peanut" started with a single thread of a story. But the tale Adam Ross heard from his father -- about a cousin who was overweight, allergic to peanuts and was found slumped over a table, a plate of peanuts in front of her, dead from anaphylactic shock -- was not the sort of incident that often rises above the level of gossip and innuendo.

But Ross, who lives in Nashville, thought otherwise.

"I sit down and, bang, I write these three chapters, the first three chapters you see in the novel," he says. "And then I put on the brakes."

Ross needed something else beyond the macabre, suspicious incident to move the story forward. So he summoned the ghosts of M.C. Escher, the artist known for his mathematically derived images; Alfred Hitchcock, the noted director of films including "Psycho" and "Rear Window"; and Sam Sheppard, the notorious doctor from Cleveland whose murder trial riveted the nation in 1954.

Ostensibly odd bedfellows, they proved to be the perfect conduits for "Mr. Peanut," an existential puzzle of a book, an elaborate, noir-ish work that seemingly has no literary precedent.

The book starts with a man, David Pepin, who is writing a novel about a murder -- not any murder, but that of his wife, Alice, whom he no longer finds appealing. Pepin falls out of love with his wife not because she is obese, but because she loses weight and becomes more attractive. From there, Ross incorporates his family's sad story and introduces a cast that includes Ward Hastroll, a police officer who dreams of doing away with his bed-ridden wife; and Sheppard, who does double duty as a detective investigating the death of Pepin's wife and as the real-life doctor who was convicted of murdering his own wife in his first trial, then exonerated in 1966.

Ross, a former child actor who has worked as a journalist and editor, blended the stories by borrowing themes and motifs from his sources.

"I started figuring how to take the Hitchcockian plot of a man wrongly accused," Ross says, "or to take this idea of Escher tessellations, or Escher recursive designs, or Escher Mobius design, and use them to bring the novel idea together. I saw how some of the plot strategies of Hitchcock could give me a kind of weird exoskeleton for the form. Or, specifically, using Escher and the idea of making the novel's plot direction like a Mobius strip."

Call it a literary act of faith, a belief by Ross that these fulsome, disparate parts would congeal into a cohesive narrative. But to imply that the "Mr. Peanut" came together by happenstance is not at all correct. As themes emerged, Ross was able to braid together the parts while examining different aspects of the plot.

For instance, Alice's weight implies a "struggle with her corpulence, but she's also waiting for something, like David's waiting for a degree of revolution," Ross says. "The idea of faith, even in a Kierkegaardian sense, is the most absurd form of waiting there is. You have this weird inkling about the future, with zero guarantees, and I think that, in some cases, when you're doing something that you'd like to think is original and doesn't follow any actual models you feel it is copied from, there is a huge degree of nerve involved. I don't want to make it sound like anything heroic. ... But I've got these parts, and I'm not sure how they go together, but I believe there's something here."

Perhaps the most inventive section of "Mr. Peanut" concerns Ross' exhumation of the Sam Sheppard case. Long before the O.J. Simpson affair and other media-driven legal proceedings, Sheppard's trial for the murder of his pregnant wife made headlines across the country.

"The way in which the Sheppard murder case became part of American culture as an entertainment commodity -- the television show 'The Fugitive' -- in those entertainments, Sheppard is the white knight of marriage, he is the Paladin knight off to rescue his name and really, essentially, if you look at it symbolically, save marriage," Ross says. "There's not murder at the heart of marriage, there's only love and trust, if you get my drift. But that's not what interesting to me about the Sheppard relationships.

"What's interesting to me about the Sheppard relationships, it is so at an incredible flashpoint in American history. It's that same year, the same summer, that 'Rear Window' comes out, and the aesthetics deal with women rising to power sexually and in their careers. Here's Grace Kelly, a successful, powerful woman who is threatening a passive male, Jimmy Stewart. And at this time in American history, right before the sexual revolution, you have a murder that exemplifies the impenetrability of marriage from the outside. No matter how much you read about the Sheppard case, you have to make an imaginative or judgmental leap about whether or not Sheppard did it, because none of the evidence is definitive. Well, guess what: that's just like marriage, the sense of impenetrability. ... So what makes the Sheppard case so compelling is that you have all these elements."

Additional Information:

Capsule review

'Mr. Peanut' is an elaborately constructed novel, a page turner in that readers will flip back and forth as the chapters unfold, trying to keep track of the various plot threads, the characters, the story line. It's worth the extra effort, as Adam Ross writes with often breathtaking insights into marriage and relationships.

• Rege Behe

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