Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 272 pages; $25).
“My name is Logan Pyle. My father is dead, my wife is indifferent, and my son is strange. I’m thirty-six years old. My life is nothing like I thought it would be.” Thus begins Emily Jeanne Miller’s fast-paced and deeply heartfelt debut Brand New Human Being.
Miller has worn many hats in her life. At Princeton University, from which she graduated, she studied comparative religions. She holds an MS in environmental studies from the University of Montana and an MFA in fiction from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Formerly a journalist, Miller covered a wide range of environmental topics, such as Indian casinos, nuclear bomb testing, rock climbing, and grizzly bears. We should be lucky she turned to fiction writing, as her first novel overflows with humor, tenderness, and humanity.
Initially, however, I did not like Logan. I thought Logan’s biggest problem by far was Logan. That is partially true, but he managed to win me over. All the credit goes to Miller.
Logan’s father, Gus, died four months ago. The son deeply mourns the loss of his father, perhaps more so because it was marked by a lot of distance. By distance, I do not mean miles. I refer to the distance of the heart.
Logan’s mother died when he was a child and Gus was a single-parent. When Logan was in his late teens, Gus remarried a woman only five years older than his son. Logan still has issues with Bennie, his father’s young widow.
When Miller’s story begins, Logan is husband to Julie, a lawyer, and stay-at-home dad to four-year-old son Owen. Former grad student, Logan’s status is ABD (all but dissertation). Home life is far from ideal.
An important case involving workers at a vermiculite mine preoccupies Julie. When she is with Logan and Owen, her mind seems elsewhere; and it is. Husband and wife once loved each other fiercely, but her time is short. Both Logan and Owen miss her.
Owen cries out for attention. He seems to know instinctively that things are not right in his household. He just senses something is off. As a consequence, Owen is “regressing,” sucking his thumb, and wanting to be a baby. Logan is often short with him and with his wife.
Then, there is the outdoor-equipment store called The Gold Mine that Gus left Logan. His friend, Bill, helps him run the business. An unidentified buyer made an enormous offer on the store and the land it occupies. Bill wants to take it and pushes Logan to accept.
If all those things are too much for one man to deal with, it only gets worse. Julie’s boss wants to dig up Gus, who once worked in the mines himself. His body may help their case. Logan just cannot agree to exhume his father’s body, at least not right now.
For Logan, the final straw comes when he catches Julie kissing another man at a birthday party. Something in him snaps. He packs up Owen and his most prized possession, a 1920s Louisville Slugger, and gets into his truck and leaves Julie and his troubles behind.
Or so he thinks. Bad luck follows Logan, and misadventures seem to follow. After he gets revenge on the man he saw Julie with, he ends up at his father’s old cabin and finds something unexpected and welcome there, something or someone that could really jeopardize his marriage to Julie. It is here that Logan discovers his choices–past, present, and future–matter.
By the end of the book, Logan is a different man. Since his father died, Logan has been fixated on his own mortality and grief-stricken. Like a lot of men, Logan does not know how to cope with his grief. But that is no longer an issue for him. “Somebody did die,” Logan says. “I guess I just took a while to understand that it wasn’t me.” When Owen was born, Logan marveled at his son, a “brand new human being.” Now Logan is a “brand new human being” himself and everyone around him is better for it.
Miller’s story explores marriage, family, death, love, betrayal, and forgiveness. What stands out most to me, though, is the bond between father and son. Logan may be sharp with Owen at times and he may want him to act like a big kid, yet it is clear that Logan loves his son and would do anything in the world for him. Written with humor and poignancy, Brand New Human Being shows us no one is perfect. No one is without faults. The secret to life is learning how to accept the deficiencies in others and, most importantly, the ones in ourselves.
Truth be told, if Miller had not chosen to write this novel in Logan’s first person perspective, I do not think he would have ever won me over. I am thankful she decided to tell the story like she did. Logan is not perfect, but none of us are. This novel will compel you to do your best to be a better human being. Who knows? You just may be a “brand new human being” too.