I first became aware of the writer Andy Mozina when he published a short story collection titled Quality Snacks, with Wayne State University Press’ "Made in Michigan" series back in 2014.
Mozina is a rare combination: both a literary writer and a really funny one. More times than I can count, I laughed out loud reading Quality Snacks. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on his first novel, Contrary Motion, published by Spiegel & Grau in 2016.
Contrary Motion tells an unlikely story, the story of – to paraphrase a bit from the opening – “a six feet one, cube-headed, block-shouldered, average white male with no vowels in his last name who fell in love with the harp.”
Matt Grzbc has loved playing the harp since middle school. His ultimate dream is to make first chair in an orchestra.
To say it’s not going well for Matt is putting it mildly. He’s been pursuing that goal for 24 years with no luck. When we meet him, his father has just died, his wife has left him, his best friend from college is a well-known, extremely handsome actor living in the West Village and on top of all that – or perhaps because of all that – poor Matt is suffering from penile erectile dysfunction.
How could it get worse?
It gets worse because Matt, though only a mid-lifer, can’t take Viagra because of his low blood pressure and dizzy spells. His general practitioner says that if he takes it, he’s liable to pass out. Perhaps, his doctor says, he should consider talk therapy instead. His new girlfriend, Cynthia, is patient with his performance issues, but she does start to wonder whether her harpist boyfriend might secretly prefer men.
Are these concerns things we might once have coded “feminine?” Well, yes. And Mozina was apparently aware that he was upending gender stereotypes when he was working on the book. This is the first time in fiction I’ve ever encountered a close-up, long-term battle with penile erectile dysfunction and boy was I glad to see it. I mean that in all seriousness. A man filled with insecurities about his body, his performance, his place in the world and willing to kvetch about it? Bring it on. He even wonders – GASP! – whether the fact that he can’t perform might mean he still loves his first wife. He’s neurotic and conflicted? He’s a man willing to equate sex with love? This is unusual territory and utterly refreshing.
Let’s face it. On every front, Matt, the protagonist, is having a rough go. He signs on to play the harp for people at the end stage of life in a hospice and then quips: “You know things are bad when you find yourself looking to dying people for some kind of lift.”
All of the pathos in Contrary Motion is punctuated with oodles of humor. Mozina accomplishes the rare feat of allowing his character to dabble in self-deprecation without tumbling down the rabbit hole into clownish deflection.
The question of how Matt is going to conquer all of his myriad neuroses, failures and frustrations is a captivating one. Mozina delves deep into Matt’s psyche in order to transcend these limitations.
There were moments in the novel when I wondered whether Matt was ever going to be able to extract himself from the sinkhole of his life, because he appeared to be so fixedly his own worst enemy. But Mozina has not fashioned a one-dimensional character here, and what I enjoyed most about this novel was the constant surprise of Matt’s insights. It was fun to come along for the ride.