Bobby Flopkowski had few natural advantages – he’s average-looking and from a poor background – but he has been lucky in life, and arrived at age forty with a loving family, a lucrative career as a paediatrician, and a plush Beverly Hills house. It all unravels, though, when Bobby’s baby son Jack disappeared one night, after being left alone for just five minutes; Bobby’s wife, Ava, leaves him, and he spirals down into a drink- and drug-fuelled depression, frittering his money away on expensive hotel bills. He ends up living on the beach in a tent, with no regular companions save Eddie, a fellow homeless man, and Cecilia, a cafe owner. And then, one day, Bobby spots Katie Turner, his first girlfriend, who walked back into his life shortly before Jack’s disappearance. She doesn’t seem to recognise Bobby any more, and has apparently changed her name – could this be because she knows what has happened to Jack?
Gabe Rotter’s second novel is a marvellously elegant construction. On one level, it’s a sharp study of one man’s decline; Rotter is particularly good at showing how innocent and apparently small decisions might cause a chain of major repercussions: no harm in getting in touch with the old flame, Bobby thinks; but then she turns up at his party, and she needs a place to stay; well, Bobby and Ava have room, so why not invite her – and so on. Bobby’s descent into addiction has a similarly all-too-plausible momentum; he knows that he’s destroying himself, but, having lost everything, he is unable to stop; it’s powerful, and appropriately uncomfortable, reading.
But there’s another layer to The Human Bobby, which is all about perception: just what is going on with Katie Turner? Is Bobby right about her, or has he lost his grip on reality? In a brilliantly disorienting journey, Rotter leads us through several possible interpretations, before finally settling on one that seems just a little too neat – and then wryly undermines it at the last, in a way that could be seen as either opening up the possibilities once more, or showing the depths of Bobby’s desperation. It’s a fine ending to a very fine novel.
Gabe Rotter’s blog