What a Character

The fragile, young savant in Julia Claiborne Johnson’s debut novel joins the ranks of our best child protagonists.


Nick Drnaso

All writers have a toolbox, and usually in that toolbox one implement glows with more luminous intensity than the rest. This gift wasn’t acquired through training; some muse bestowed it fresh out of Vulcan’s fires. It might be story plotting or beautiful description or world-building inventiveness. For Julia Claiborne Johnson, whose debut novel Be Frank With Me arrives in bookstores this month, it is characterization.

I don’t mean to be insulting when I say that there is no reason to read Be Frank With Me except to meet and spend time with its characters. Zany but not precious, they add substance to a novel that otherwise has the sweet, melt-away lightness of cotton candy.

Be Frank with Me tells the story of M. M. “Mimi” Banning, a prickly literary legend who rose to glory in her 20s after publishing a novel about an athlete—known only as “The Pitcher”—who descends into madness. The character becomes a cultural touchstone, a film adaptation of Pitched is drizzled with Oscar gold, and Mimi retires to a glass mansion in Bel Air, seemingly never to write another word.

Everything changes, though, when crooked loan sharks relieve her of her fortune. Her publisher sends her an assistant to manage the Banning household while she feverishly crafts a second novel. Enter 24-year-old Alice Whitley, sane, competent, and careful, with more than a physical resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s wonderland-wandering ingénue: “My hair is pretty, I’ll give you that. It’s thick, blond, and shiny, and grows straight to my waist without petering out.” Yet Alice’s drollery veers toward the dark. “Two of my great-grandfathers were named Vard and Thorsson, so go figure,” she continues. “I’ll let you in on a secret, though. Hair like mine is a burden. I’m always worried my face will be a disappointment when I turn around. Still, I’m not dumb enough to cut it off to punish it for being the best thing about me.”

If Alice’s hair is her one extravagance, her one deceptively whimsical ornament, Frank Banning—Mimi’s 9-year-old son—is all improvident display. He’s the novel’s surprise ingredient, the kind of kid, like Christopher in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, who falls on an autistic spectrum or a genius spectrum or both. A connoisseur of 1930s Hollywood glamor, Frank is partial to swallowtails, cufflinks, and boater hats; enchanted by trivia; prone to lying prone on the floor when someone touches him without his permission. Who is his father? Alice, charged with the care and keeping of Frank while Mimi writes, can’t figure it out. But possible candidates emerge, chief among them Xander, the Banning family’s alluringly chiseled and irresponsible carpenter/piano teacher/“itinerant male role model.”

Did I mention this book is delightful? It is delightful. You will laugh out loud. You will flash back to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—another saga of brightly broken people that, miraculously, kept getting funnier as it went on, apparent comedic high points outing themselves as comedic midpoints when new shenanigans arrived a few beats later. Alice remembers hectoring her mother, an M.M. Banning fan (and now dead, because parents in Be Frank With Me can’t help letting their children down, even when it’s not their fault):

“I hate how the guy is just called ‘The Pitcher,’ ” I complained to her. “Why doesn’t he have a name?” My mother said she guessed the author did that to make the story feel universal, to help readers imagine the character as their own brother or son. “I don’t have a brother or son,” I said. “It just makes it easier for me to imagine him as a water jug with a handle.”

Or consider Frank explaining what he was doing in the driveway with the station wagon: “Oh, you mean the stagecoach. I was robbing it.” Or Frank announcing to Alice that he is going to bed “in your bed. With your permission. Feel free to come to me with any questions.”  

Yet the main question—that of Frank’s origins—is not as fraught as it should be, in part because the case of the mystery sperm feels less interesting and relevant than the case of the three (four, counting Alice) eccentrics in an estate made of glass trying not to kill each other. And why should Frank need a dad, specifically? More poignant than his fatherlessness—a kind of retrograde, Freudian shorthand for feeling adrift—is his vulnerability to rejection at school. (In one heartbreaking scene, an adventurous friendship with a female classmate is revealed to only exist in his mind.)

Julia Claiborne Johnson

Christa Parravani

I also suspect that Johnson might have wrung more pathos from her material by giving us direct access to Frank’s inner life. While Alice proves a compassionate observer of his fragility, her gaze is already so tender that one feels excused from loaning the kid additional sympathy. By contrast, both Haddon and Emma Donoghue, in Room, used a child’s perspective like a viewfinder, isolating innocent details—“There’s wet running down Ma’s face onto mine,” Jack observes as Ma cries—that only register as harrowing through our adult eyes.

Then again, total psychic devastation doesn’t seem to be on Johnson’s list of priorities. In reviews, the book amounts to a kind of flypaper for phrases such as “enjoyable page-turner” and “merry misadventure” and “quirky charm”—like Frank, Johnson knows how to use style as a defense mechanism against substance. If I could somehow notate the lovely rhythms of the dialogue without conveying its content, I would. And yet stylishness also signals difference in Be Frank With Me. It’s the loneliest character, the outsider, who is nattily dressed and impeccably spoken. While normal humanity streams by in complacent disarray, oddity is carefully composed.

Johnson’s kooky sensibility spreads through the book like a controlled climate system—a performance of natural weather. The rainclouds are seeded with jokes. One, told by Alice to Frank, goes: A skeleton walks into a bar and asks for a beer and a mop. (Get it? He has no stomach, so he’ll need equipment to clean up the alcohol.) Effort expended on goofy humor may be effort not spent confronting grief, fear, and isolation, but it is still tragic. It’s escape, but to where? Who wants to be the lone skeleton in the bar?

In fact, for sartorially minded Frank, a skeleton might represent the most frightening thing in the world: not death, but radical nakedness. The 9-year-old plays dress up, but he can’t dissemble—that’s his beauty as well as his vulnerability. He is always a little too Frank.

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson. William Morrow.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.