“Books may be temporary; dicks are forever.” This is one of the lines that really capture the witty writing of Gillian Flynn in her new short story “The Grownup”. Originally published in the anthology Rutgers edited by George R R Martin, the story was later brought out as a standalone book.
The narrator of the story is a woman (the author does not reveal her name in the entire book, so we will call her “Mandy”) who gives hand jobs at Spiritual Palms, a place which specializes in tarot card and crystal ball reading at the front, while having a discreet soft sex racket behind closed doors. Mandy has had a difficult childhood: never knowing her father and having had to beg with her mother in order to sustain themselves. However, her mother is ingenuous. She knows which people to target for money (go to women in groups instead of single ladies; never to men in suits), and these skills are passed on to the daughter. The daughter turns out to be a quick learner, managing to earn more than her mother, so much so that she finally decides to escape that life and a newspaper ad leads her to Spiritual Palms. She knows that with a few past records she can never go into prostitution, so she goes on to give hand jobs. Having always been good at judging people and knowing what they want beforehand (also cognizant of the fact that the majority of the people coming for handjobs are middle-aged and perhaps, a bit scared), she tries to ease the situation by asking a few questions and breaking the ice. She excels at it, and starts having repeat clients. It is with one such repeat customer that the story actually starts.
Mark is a normal, middle aged family man who comes to her for hand jobs. Mandy and Mark both share a love of books that makes the bond between them more than that of customer and service provider: one between two book lovers.
Having realized her talent at the back of the room, her boss decides to put her out in the front, advising women and calming their fears. She meets Susan Burke, a mother of two who works in an agency and “defines and eliminates problems.” Susan appears troubled with the strange behavior of her step-son and asks Mandy for her help. Realizing that Susan is rich, Mandy begins of think of this as her gateway card to make a name for herself. She agrees to come over to her house and sort out the troublemaker.
When she sees the house for the first time, she gets the creeps. However, seeing a massive library filled with at least a thousand books somehow calms her down. She decided that she could get through anything as long as she had some time to lock herself up in the library to read.
But, the matter is not so easy as she thinks it will be. The son is really a creep, and there are incidents when Mandy begins to realise that the threat to her life that Susan was talking about, was not a misguided conception at all. She researches the house and finds that the previous owners were killed by their step-son: the father was stabbed, the mother was killed with an ax, and the younger son was drowned before the step-son hanged himself. And the eerie thing was that the step-son looked exactly the same as Miles, Susan’s step-son. Realising something was amiss, Mandy asks Susan to consider moving out of the house.
One day while in the library, Mandy stumbles onto a picture of Mark in a library book. Realizing that she has been giving handjobs to her client’s husband, she things that she has been caught and that Susan will inform the police. This is where Miles comes in and informs her that they must leave, as Susan is planning to kill them both as she knows about Mandy and the hand jobs. Miles tells her that Susan came to Spiritual Palms so that she could seek Mandy out (remember that it was Susan’s job to “define and eliminate problems”). Mandy realises that she was doubting the wrong person and runs away with Miles. On the way, Miles tells her that Susan knew nothing about the affair, and that he had lied to her so that he could leave the place and begin a new life: a life where he set the rules and had to listen to no one. Mandy begins to realise that she can never know who is right, and understands that the best way forward is to use Miles as her son and play the single mother angle to get her way in the world.
Taking a simple theme that has been repeated and retold a number of times (a haunted house; troubled step-son; cheating husband), Gillian Flynn weaves an intricate plot and the story acquires a new dimension in her masterful hands. The book is well worth a read for any person who is a fan of thrillers.