Jack Lang, the protagonist of This Is Just Exactly Like You, is a father, husband, friend, boss, and home owner. These are fairly conventional roles, and ones that he has taken on willingly and tried earnestly to fulfill, but in each, his performance seems at best uneven, and sometimes wildly off-kilter. Fatherhood for Jack means strict adherence to his autistic son’s inscrutable obsessions and routines, with little noticeable affection in return. His marriage is on the brink of collapse, due both to the strains of parenting a special-needs child and his wife’s exasperation at Jack’s endlessly unfinished renovation projects. Friendship becomes a treacherous and unpredictable thing when his wife leaves him for his best friend, and grows thornier still when he finds himself getting friendlier and friendlier with his best friend’s girlfriend. His employees at his small business seem more ready to run the place than he does at times, and his career as a home owner is spectacularly unsuccessful. When the novel opens, he’s standing in the attic of the house his wife has just vacated, a house with missing floors and half-built walls, and he’s contemplating his recent purchase of a nearly identical house across the street.
Over the course of a few weeks, Jack must face the surprises and disappointments of adulthood and decide what he wants his life to be. Though he sheepishly acknowledges that his wife, the practical Beth, is right to want a stable, more conventional life in order to cope with the difficulties of raising their son, Hendrick, he is also constantly bemused by and even enthralled with Hen’s unpredictable ways. When the formerly uncommunicative boy starts speaking fluent Spanish, and Jack and Hen move to the house across the street, Jack’s life begins to take a complicated, unconventional, and rather delightful turn.
Drew Perry’s novel is written in such an intimate third-person style that it feels at times as though Jack is narrating it himself. It’s a story of the grief and joy of family life, full of humor and hope and a deeply felt sympathy for what makes us who we are.
ABOUT DREW PERRY
Drew Perry holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and now teaches writing at Elon University in North Carolina. His short fiction has been published in Black Warrior Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and New Stories from the South. He lives with his wife in Greensboro, North Carolina.
A CONVERSATION WITH DREW PERRYQ. Jack’s son, Hendrick, is autistic, and has a great deal of difficulty with new sensations and with communication. How did you research this disorder, and how did you decide which of the many variants of autism Hendrick would have?
I grew up with an autistic brother. This character isn’t a replica of my brother, or even a version of him, really—my brother, though he was diagnosed in much the same way Hendrick is diagnosed in the novel, is now much more high–functioning than Hendrick is in the book. In fact, he’s more “high–functioning”—a term that carries delicate metaphorical weight, I think—than most of us are: He’s got several graduate degrees, he’s married, he pays his bills on time. But I couldn’t have written Hen if I hadn’t grown up with my brother. Some of the repetitions, the obsessive behaviors, and surely the extraordinary intelligence are shades of what I saw in my brother when he was a child. If I understand anything about the “disease”—another delicate term—it’s because of my brother.
And I’ll say this: One of the things I love about Hendrick is his filterlessness. He sees the world in much more clear and exact and precise ways, I think, than many of the other characters in the novel are able to. If he’s the center of the book, or if Jack’s relationship with Hen is the center, then that’s part of why. Hen sees the world for what it is. The rest of the characters—the rest of us, fictional or not—aren’t always able to.
Q. Do you know of cases where a child like Hendrick began communicating in an unexpected way, either through language or some other method? What appealed to you about this development?
I’m not a doctor, and I don’t pretend to be. But one of the things that’s so vexing about autism and Asperger’s and the like is that they’re spectrum disorders—there is no common set of the same six things each diagnosed person evidences. There are families of behaviors common across diagnosed patients, and there are common therapies, but a spectrum disorder means just that: The diagnosed patient lands somewhere in a family of recognizable maladies. How and whether to treat those maladies is often a deeply difficult question.
Can progress be made, though? Absolutely. And can progress be sudden? Sometimes. I mean in no way to represent Hendrick as a “normal” or an “average” child suffering, if that’s even the right word, from autism spectrum disorder. But I do think that there are patients like him, and I do stand by him as an accurate representation of someone with autism.
As for what appealed to me fictively: This is (I hope) a novel about waking into the world for each of the central characters, and I think there’s a compelling tension that arrives as Hendrick, for all intents and purposes, begins that process before any of the adults do.
Q. Some of Hendrick’s recitations (from advertising jingles and TV show themes, for instance) seem significant, in an off–beat way, given the context of his surroundings. Did you consider making that significance more overt? How did you choose what kind of ads Hendrick would recite?
I love crazy local ads. Love them. In our market, there’s been for years this series of hour–long auto dealership commercials that star a fiercely smiling former Miss USA satellite pageant winner or something like that, and if one of those is on, I can’t help but watch it through to the end. There’s also a furniture guy in a gorilla suit who records new commercials depending on the season (think primates yelling about President’s Day). I don’t know what it is about advertising, and local ads in particular, but I really have a kind of obsession for the unintentionally strange or odd or funny. And local or not, that kind of thing is everywhere—I think Hen’s just echoing back the world in all its clutter and insanity, whether it’s in jingles or in what’s coming out of his parents’ mouths.
I’d be too nervous about saying any specific significance was intentional—I recognize that sometimes there are happy accidents throughout the book, and that sometimes what he says is related in some way to the moment, but I feel like if I was reaching, on purpose, for an overt connection to capital–M Meaning that I’d be guilty of some kind of offense against metaphor.
Q. Why all the domestic drama? Why the partner swapping?
I didn’t really mean for any of that to be there at first. But my wife woke me up one morning saying, “You have to get up. They’re auctioning the stuff from the house across the street. This is your kind of thing.” It was my kind of thing, and I went over there, and there was a moment, like there is in the book, where the house itself was up for sale, and it was the same layout as our house and for a lot less money, and I thought, “huh.”
I didn’t buy it, but that got stuck somewhere in my head, and then I realized I had, at least, the initial problem of the book: What would Beth do if Jack bought the house across the street? And I realized that if that wasn’t all he’d done—if it was part of a pattern; if she was exhausted, and exasperated, and over it—then she just might leave him for a little while. And then she’s gone, and she’s moved in with his best friend, mainly because she’s got no real place else to turn, and then his best friend’s ex–girlfriend knocks on his door, and then everything’s a mess—but if it works, and I hope it does, then it’s because of the messiness. I’ve been in enough romantic fiascos to know that we tend to do some foolish things, so I tried to let these people do foolish things, and then I tried to figure out what the fallout from that might be.
Q. The tertiary characters in this novel are as vivid and finely drawn as the main characters: Butner, Ernesto, Zel, even teenaged Randy are all engaging. How long did you work on developing their characters? Are any of them based on real people?
Sometimes my characters are based on combinations of people—Butner’s a sort of version of the guy who knows more than you do at the mechanic’s, the hardware store, wherever. He’s the guy I worked for doing home repair in grad school, or he’s the guy you’d hope to find in the plumbing aisle when you have a question about your sump pump. He’s the guy I’d hope to find, anyway. But no, nobody in the book is based on any one person. I usually learn those kinds of characters the way I learn any other kind—through dialogue, through speech patterns, through the rhythms of the ways they talk. And then once they’re talking to each other, their personalities just sort of develop there on the page, I guess. In early drafts they tend to be less complicated, and then as I know them better, hear them better, they hopefully get a little more threedimensional.
Q. The smoking catfish and the all–blue putt–putt course are striking images. Did you begin writing with those (or other) images in mind, or did they come to you in the course of writing the novel?
I had no idea until I got to that part in the book that the putt–putt would be there. There was a putt–putt course near my house that went defunct, though, and while it wasn’t an undersea theme, that stuck with me. A furniture store (I think the same store as the gorilla–suit guy) bought the fiberglass animals—giraffe, elephant, that kind of thing—and put them in its parking lot, and I used to go by there from time to time to get out of the car and look at them. I don’t really know why. Maybe I just like elephants in parking lots.
I had the mulch yard in mind because I drive by one every day on the way to work, so those details are virtually identical. The house(s) are versions of a house my wife and I used to live in, a plain rectangular ranch. The Brightwood exists and is much, much better than I was able to render it on the page. It’s a place that’s kind of impossible to explain.
Q. Did you ever consider having Jack and Rena end up together, instead of Jack and Beth?
I did. I absolutely did. I think there’s a draft or two in the attic that ends that way, in fact. But the book somehow required the other ending. Once I had this one on the page, I never felt like any other one was possible. Jack never really thinks Beth’s left for good, and Beth never really seems to, either. They do love each other, and they love Hendrick, and the three of them are a family in a way that insisted on some version of this ending—though this is too messy an ending, I think, or I hope, to suggest anything absolute.
Q. Some of the dialogue in this book is in quotations, and some is in italics. Why the distinction?
Basically, I tried to do italics in those spots that didn’t take place either in the present moment or in full flashbacked scene. Is “flashbacked” a word? What I was hoping for there was not to break out of that close expository third any more than I had to. It always felt sort of fetishistically close, and it was the way I finally figured out how to write the book, if I did figure out how to write it, so the italics are for a rhythm that I could feel, anyway. This is not a good answer. My students will kill me. I don’t know. It felt right. It felt closer to Jack’s own way of thinking.
Q. A major theme of this book seems to be the importance of seeing value in the illogical, the unpredictable, and the absurd. Is this something you struggle with in your own life?
I think sometimes I only see value in the illogical and the unpredictable and the absurd. I love the weird. I love the weird better than I love the normal, whatever that is. Or maybe this isn’t quite right. I like those moments when the world seems a little more brightly colored than usual. Where I live, there’s a clown who sometimes goes to work fully dressed, and she’ll pass you in traffic, and you’ll look over, and there’ll be a clown, nose and all, in the next lane. I like that. I don’t know what it means, but I like it.
Though I should say: Clowns in traffic are not much more illogical or unpredictable or absurd than most of what any of us see or do on a daily basis, right? Like dating? Or cable TV? Or the way the produce sections at some grocery stores make thunder noises before the vegetable misters turn on? I just find myself attracted to the deep strangeness of the world. I tried to let the book chase that, too.
Q. You have an academic career in Greensboro, North Carolina. Is Jack’s turn from academia to Patriot Mulch & Tree a fantasy (or fear) of yours?
I hate meetings. I spend time thinking about how I hate meetings. I especially hate bullet points on slides in meetings. But I love the insides of my classrooms, and I feel like it’s a ridiculous honor to draw a paycheck to talk about what matters most to me in the world. Are there days when I feel like lighting my office on fire and printing three hundred I–will–mow–your–lawn–for–twenty–dollars mailbox flyers and seeing what happens? Of course. And does teaching take away from my time to write? Yes. But I love the work anyway. I love it when summer comes around and I get to go home and write a little more regularly, and I love it when fall shows back up and I get to go talk about what holds a story together, and why that might make any difference to anyone at all.
- In their climactic confrontation, Beth punches Jack in the face and gives him a black eye (p. 297). He seems more baffled by this than angry and seems to forgive her rather readily. Why do you think he wasn’t angrier at her in this scene or throughout the book? Do you sympathize with Beth’s frustration in this scene or in any other?
- Beth gets exasperated with Jack’s offbeat plans and his tendency to fizzle out on them, while Jack is bothered by her overcautious nature. Do you think Hendrick’s birth and/or the difficulties presented by his autism exacerbate these conflicting natures in his parents? If so, in what ways?
- A number of themes present themselves in this novel: the difficulties of parenthood, the challenge to accept one’s own imperfections and to find ways to love the eccentricities of others, the value of the absurd in everyday life, the nature of friendship, and the ability to deal with the ramifications of one’s own actions. What did you take to be the major theme of the book and why?
- Hendrick’s only means of communication sometimes is reciting advertisements and jingles he’s memorized. At first they seem random, but there are moments-when he confronts Canavan with the NPR catchphrases (p. 84), for example, or when he calms himself after a tantrum with lines from the “Dead Dog Channel” (p. 280)-that indicate that for Hen, at least, these announcements have significance and relate to the events around him. Which of these kinds of moments struck you as particularly funny or trenchant?
- There are some touching and unusual friendships that develop in the course of the book: Jack’s friendship with Butner, Butner’s with Ernesto, Jack’s conflicted relationships with both Rena and Canavan, Hen’s bond with his father, and, of course, Hendrick’s connection to Ernesto. Which of these struck you as the most compelling, and which seemed the most surprising? Why?
- What did you make of Jack’s decision to move himself and Hendrick across the street?
- Does the humor in the novel serve a function more important than comic relief? If so, what is it that the humor allows the book to do?