Book: Mr Obvious by James Lileks

Entertaining novel set in 1990s Minneapolis

July 26, 2011

James Lileks

Mr Obvious

Pocket Books, 1995

ISBN: 0-671-73705-8

277 pages

Out of print; inexpensive used copies seem to be readily available as of this writing

James Lileks is a Minneapolitan humorist and commentator. I’ve been a fan of his for some time. He has said fairly recently on his blog that he is working on a new series of novels. He has even posted a few pages of a draft.

I plan to read those novels when they’re available and I expect to enjoy them. Since they’re not available yet, I thought I’d read Mr Lileks’s first two novels, Falling Up the Stairs and Mr Obvious.

As in Falling Up the Stairs, the main character of Mr Obvious is Jonathan Simpson. He lives in Minneapolis and he’s a journalist at the local alternative weekly Metropole. As this book begins, the events in Falling Up the Stairs happened some years earlier and Jonathan has written a true-crime book about them. A made-for-television movie has been made in turn, and Jonathan goes to a local radio station to be interviewed about it. The interview doesn’t go especially well for anyone. As the host is walking Jonathan back out to the parking lot, someone shoots out one of the letters in the station’s sign. And pretty much the next thing Jonathan experiences is waking up in a hospital bed three months later. It seems that a bullet had injured the radio host, been deflected, and given Jonathan a small brain injury. Subsequently, it seems that the same person is doing the same thing at other radio stations across the country. As with Falling Up the Stairs, the plot is a little more intricate than it really needs to be.

Also as with Falling Up the Stairs, Mr Lileks gives us a few metaphors that are neither illuminating nor funny. “The entire relationship had felt dull and impermanent, like something you put in a bus station locker” (p. 1). And the ending is a bit “meta”.

But none of those things are very important. Mr Lileks has a particular ability to conjure the atmosphere of a place and a time. And he captures early-1990s Minneapolis splendidly here. Remember dialup modems? BBSes? Fax machines? The New French Bar? (You’ll only remember that last one if you spent time in Minneapolis then.) To steal from what I said about Falling Up the Stairs, I liked 1990s Minneapolis in real life, and to nostalgically inhabit a version invented by James Lileks for a few hours in 2011 was a pleasure.