In the first seven pages of Zoë Heller's debut novel, "Everything You Know," we learn that Willy Muller has suffered a heart attack; that his youngest daughter, Sadie, has committed suicide; and that he still receives hate mail from people who believe he killed his wife more than a decade earlier.
Willy once thrived as a well-regarded British TV journalist, but things fell apart for him after his wife, Oona, slipped and crushed her skull in the kitchen during a drunken argument. He served jail time for murder until the conviction was overturned. Eleven years after being cleared, he remains a vilified public figure (hello, O.J.!), reduced to writing trashy celebrity biographies to make ends meet. His surviving daughter, Sophie, also despises him, lowering herself to make contact only when she needs money to support her drug habit.
Whatever inclination you may have to feel bad for Willy, however, quickly disappears: This is hardly a character who inspires sympathy. After his heart attack, he convalesces in a Puerto Vallarta house supplied by his agent, accompanied by his girlfriend, a Pollyanna who suffers his boorishness with a patience beyond human understanding. Shortly after Oona's death, in an attempt to pay his legal bills, Willy wrote a tell-almost-all memoir; as he relates his tale in Puerto Vallarta, he's struggling to adapt the memoir into a screenplay, despite his awareness of the venture's unseemliness.
That Willy wards off emotion is evident early on. Consider, for example, his declaration of respect for Sadie's manner of suicide:
Sadie might have done herself in in any number of vulgar or grotesque ways ... She might have hanged herself from a light fixture after listening to Satanic messages in pop songs played backwards. As it was, she merely mixed herself a muddy cocktail using a plastic pestle and mortar borrowed from her daughter's Little Miss Chef set. So, lest there be any confusion, let me acknowledge right here: It Could Have Been Worse.
Willy cheerily disdains sentimentality in any form, even when he receives a package from his deceased daughter that contains her diaries. But the diaries spark his search for salvation. He reads sections from them throughout the book; Heller begins each chapter with a different snippet, and through Sadie's writing we get to know her. Life hasn't been an easy ride for her, either: growing up knowing that everyone, including Sophie, thinks her father killed her mother; dealing with a miserable, drug-addled sister; struggling through an affair with an emotionally abusive married man.
Heller, a well-known London journalist, has a sharp eye for detail (one of Willy's nurses "had a tide mark around her neck and a greyish mole on her left cheek, sprouting two long, reedy hairs -- like a cartoon desert island"), but she doesn't fall into Tom Wolfe-like overdescription. She is adept at the broad-stroke assessment of New York crime, Mexican cockroaches, London malaise. She squeezes in some fine satire about the workings of Hollywood and keeps things breezing along with plenty of sex and boozing.
But except for the brief excerpts from Sadie's journal, the only voice we hear is Willy's, and his worldview soon grows tiresome. His vulgar, misanthropic rantings are more cutting than amusing. And given everything we know about him by the end of the story, it's difficult to believe that such a loathsome creature is capable of redemption. Sadie is the more compelling character, but Heller returns to her story all too intermittently. There are also a few irritating anachronisms. The story is set in 1981, yet there are references to Madonna, "E.T." and Tom Cruise movies.
Still, with "Everything You Know," Heller has proved herself a fine, original storyteller and a deft stylist. Let's hope that she populates her future work with people a little better -- or, at least, a little more interesting -- than Willy Muller.