Mark O’Donnell’s acid-tinged Christmas novel Let Nothing You Dismay becomes rather dense in its pileups of
literary allusion and wordplay, but it seems churlish to complain that a book is too
witty. The story of a distraught ex-teacher making the New York party rounds five days before Christmas, Dismay is sprinkled with lines like “Tad didn’t even know what was being built, or destroyed, but [the construction work] always sounded like a gargantuan Darwinian battle between a groaning metallic pterodactyl and a solid-lead woodpecker about ten stories high.” That’s in one of his
Tad— who’s described by a friend as a “psychonaut” (his mind drifts), though he fancies himself a stylist “just trying to apply creme rinse and a comb to our tangled lives”— never stops dispensing catchily phrased observations. Even when he goes to the bathroom, he notes that “as the fragile archipelago swirled away in the flush,” it reminds him of Gustave Doré’s drawings of Dante’s
Tad may seem encyclopedic and glib, but that’s just the kind of person you want as your proxy into the cross-cultural collisions that pass for holiday get-togethers. Having broken up with his boyfriend, been fired because of a made-up molestation charge, and faced ejection from his sublet, Tad needs to learn that while life’s not all butter and birthday cake (as Mom always says), it shouldn’t be swirled away in the flush either. This realization comes as he races downtown, uptown, and crosstown for a full day’s worth of eggnog-flavored awakening. His party/enlightenment-process slows down whenever O’Donnell (the humorist-translator who previously wrote
Getting Over Homer) strains for bon mots or condescends to Tad’s family members, but it
revives as the book ambles toward midnight, even as it spoofs well-trod territory like models and East Village performance art. By fiesta’s end, it’s clear that this is no fragile archipelago. It’s a wise, hilarious stocking stuffer, the kind to read five days before Christmas every year.