A Thousand Benjamins

Everybody has known somebody like Benjamin Sacks. Terrific guy, Benjamin. Thoughtful, gentle, reliable, modest, and sincere — really and truly sincere. Not too quick on the uptake, maybe, but such a nice person. Irony escapes him completely. Or maybe he just can’t stand to hurt anybody’s feelings. The kind of guy eeerybody feels sorry for and feels guilty for avoiding-though not guilty enough to invite him over for pizza. It’s a pity about Benjamin’s wife ; leaving him like that, but you can see how she might. ”A thousand Benjamins,” she said on her way out the door, ”couldn’t make me happy anymore.” And the poor sap still loves her.

Enter Kim, your basic perky type. A bit of a tomboy, actually. Cute as a speckled pup, and full of quirky energy and spontaneity. Kim likes to carry her baseball glove on auto trips and break the monotony with a snappy game of catch. One minute she’s climbing pasture fences to hold conversations with cows. Next she’s persuading Benjamin to drive hours out of their way just to visit Benjamin, Ind. — a tiny farm town so unremarkable they almoot miss it. And how about the time ”(t)his Kim, in Ohio. . . pointing first to her flat stomach and then thumping Benjamin’s chest, told the cashier at McDonald’s, ‘I’m carrying his baby. At least I think it’s his. I mean, how can a girl be certain these days?’ Benjamin blushed and shook his head, no, no, no. She wasn’t carrying his baby.”

As a matter of fact, Michael Kun’s first novel doesn’t make it entirely clear for the longest time whether or not Benjamin and Kim are lovers in the carnal sense. As Kim refuses under any circumstances to remove the T-shirts she wears — she even showers in them sometimes — the reader kind of guesses that they’re not. But then he’s 41, she’s 23. They live and travel together. On the first night she spent at his place, the reader learns early on, ”he and Kim hadn’t even kissed, they’d just undressed and fallen into bed after a late dinner, and there she was when he woke that next morning, lying there on top of the sheets in her T-shirt and underpants. . . .” So Benjamin slipped off to the florist’s to cover the girl with flowers, ”dropping them lightly so that she’d wake in a field, the scent surrounding her like a blanket.” And still no kisses.

The serpent in this prelapsarian garden, readers already may have deduced, lies beneath Kim’s T-shirt in the form of ”a scar running from the notch of her throat, between her breasts like a fat creek, coming to a pointed halt just above her ribs. . . .” Benjamin couldn’t restrain himself from sneaking a peek. She’s had open-heart surgery for a congenital defect, the weeping girl confides. Knowing that the scar is there afflicts him terribly. ”Leaving her,” he thinks, ”would be like running from a car wreck with someone still trapped inside.”

But for Benjamin, who already has known enough tragedy in his life to fill two Anne Tyler novels or roughly two-thirds of one John Irving novel, loving , Kim and losing her might be more than he can bear. When it comes to sentimental dilemmas, Kun — a Baltimore attorney who wrote A Thousand Benjamins during, and seemingly as an antidote to, his last year at the University of Virginia law school — has created a real four-handkerchief special. ”When you’re a boy,” Benjamin explains to his boss on the morning after his first date with Kim, ”you want to be a man. But when you’re a man, you want more than anything to be a boy again. . . . I’m 40 years old. . .and maybe last night was that moment when I was happy being exactly, precisely, who I am.”

Remarkably enough, given its cloying premise and Kun’s relentlessly quotidian focus, A Thousand Benjamins actually gains force as it proceeds. Besides the fact that — darn it — Kim kind of grows on you, the novel retains a bittersweet integrity that elevates it a bit above the Love Story level. Benjamin hangs in because Benjamin’s been there, and he knows how it feels to have a personal tragedy drive off all your friends. Manipulative, but painfully sincere. B-

A Thousand Benjamins
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