News & Politics

Plum & Jaggers

Story of comedians puts reader at “frustrating remove.”

Washington novelist Shreve’s latest book mines one of the richest relationships in fiction: that among brothers and sisters. Sam McWilliams and his three siblings, orphaned when a bomb kills their parents, grow up in DC and move to New York City, where they achieve modest fame as a comedy troupe with a TV show, Plum & Jaggers (after their parents’ nicknames). The only one old enough to remember the tragedy, Sam becomes the protector, the keeper of memory, the writer whose words give voice to the family’s predicament.

Shreve, a gifted writer, has set up a no-win situation: telling a story about comedians. She must either quote generously from routines and risk flattening the comedy on the page or ask us to take her word for it that her protagonists are a stitch. Shreve chooses the latter strategy. Given that she’s not a humorist, this is probably the wiser choice, but it puts the reader at a frustrating remove from her characters’ central mode of expression.

She’s on firmer ground showing the siblings being siblings—gossiping, driving each other crazy, holding themselves together in the wake of loss. Sam, she writes, “did his best work in the quiet interior of the van, whole episodes of Plum & Jaggers surfacing, as if a birthmark on his brain had split open, spilling stories.” Shreve knows that trauma leaves marks just as indelible; storytelling is as good a way as any to survive.

Susan Richards Shreve

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.