Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut is a shotgun blast of a novel, violent, scattered, and chaotic. While it initially masquerades as a self-referential and studied hybrid of domestic drama and true crime fiction, it ultimately comes off as a writing exercise in tricky plots rather than a fully developed narrative.
The book divides itself between two sets of characters and eras that the author takes great delight in blurring. David and his wife, Alice, are an emotionally troubled couple living in New York. Soon Alice dies, her mouth stuffed full of peanuts to which she is allergic. When David emerges as the prime suspect, the meta-games begin. One of the investigators assigned to Alice’s case is Sam Sheppard, the center of a real-life murder trial saga in the mid-fifties, and Ross weaves the true story of the Sheppard murders into his circuitous plot. The novel’s middle, and its heart, is dedicated to the Sheppard story, and the character of Sam’s wife, Marilyn, is the most successful aspect of the work.
Her struggle with her loutish husband is honest and believable. It is when Marilyn is on the page, that the book really satisfies. Other real-life players in the case, Dick Eberling and Susan Hayes, float through these scenes with predictable results. As Marilyn’s death draws nearer, the whole enterprise takes on the feel of an old Law & Order episode.
Throughout Ross labors as if he’s not sure the reader is actually getting it and drops dozens of illusions to cycles and patterns—there’s even a deus ex machina character named Mobius—that feel contrived and redundant. It doesn’t help that the prose vacillates somewhere between mid-period Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk’s predilection for the gross and unseemly. The writing is oddly fixated on the phallus, with the word cock appearing nearly a dozen times and a whole section dedicated to male nudity at a sauna. This fascination seems appropriate, as the book drips with a nervous hypermasculinity, constantly tripping itself up with clumsy machismo. When the author has to focus on the feminine, the results are awkward at best:
“Hannah, deep into her second trimester, gave off body heat like an oven, was an oven, and it was baking their loaf of love.”
Lines like this and Ross’s penchant for writing overheated sex scenes—and there is a lot of sex in this book—undermines the novel’s ambitious structure. However, even if Ross’s narrative tricks worked, most of his characters are thinly written, making most of the book an exercise to get through. Alice is a hippo-sized, inscrutable shrew. Her husband is no better, ping-ponging between self pity and myopic absorption. They each exhaust each other—and the reader—with their constant bickering and second-guessing of each other’s motives. When an ending, and there is arguably more than one, devolves into cat-and-mouse game between David and Mobius, the novelty of the plot construct has worn off, and the reader hungers for a way out of this too self-aware labyrinth of tricks and hot air.
It’s interesting to note that in real life, Sheppard, after being exonerated of his wife’s murder and released from prison, worked as a professional wrestler under the name “The Killer.” The novelistic implications of that idea alone are worth more than a thousand Mr. Peanuts.