Oy, is this a weird book! Here are a few of the key elements: Elvis, runaway parents, agoraphobia, toe fungus, Bagel King, hair replacement therapy, a randy podiatrist, a big-hearted mailman, a crazy doctor, Cousin It, and a woman named Cass (after Mama Cass) who grows a six inch horn in the middle of her forehead. And did I mention she wants to be Jewish? Cass, lest she choke to death like her namesake! What kind of mishigass is this?
Turns out, the author, Laurie Foos, has a theory or two about how to write a novel. One theory goes like this: Make something weird enough and folks will look right past all of the weirdness to find the heart of the story. The second theory? Make something weird enough, and folks will stick with you to see how you’re going to pull the damn thing off. And pull it off, she does. I think. I’m still a little bit woozy from this tale’s wild and often very funny ride.
Foos’s Before Elvis There Was Nothing tells the story of two sisters abandoned eighteen years prior by parents who cared more for their Elvis record collection than for their children. One sister, Lena, is afraid to leave her apartment and spends her days chewing Xanax and chatting online with an Internet shrink. The other, our gorgeous heroine Cass, works as a hair replacement specialist at Regal Restoration, a spa for balding women. Cass is in collusion with Ernie, Lena’s boyfriend, in giving her sister hope that their parents may someday return. Once a year, for Lena’s birthday, Cass creates a fake birthday card from their parents, which Ernie—their mailman—subsequently delivers. OK, hang with me. I’m almost to the book’s major plot point. On Lena’s thirty-sixth birthday, Cass notices a small bump on her own forehead. Each day, the bump grows, forcing Cass to attempt to hide the growth by wearing scarves, hats or wigs.
It’s here that the novel takes a devious turn, a turn even more devious than placing a big fat horn on a Jewish wannabee’s forehead. Cass is hoodwinked into checking herself into a strange medical facility run by the golden-haired Dr. Anderson. (“Anderson?” Cass says.“What kind of a goy name is that? I want a Jewish doctor!”) Dr. Anderson, it turns out, is an evil man, holding dozens of beastlike humans against their will for reasons unknown. At mealtime, a man, who looks an awful lot like Elvis before he left the building, brings out the food cart. And what do the inmates get for dinner? Ham! Poor Cass! She’s physically and spiritually a wreck, and ready for redemption. How she manages to save herself—in the process turning her greatest flaw into her best asset—is Foos’s message of hope for all who suffer from their own buried repressions.
Talk about juggling multiple issues at once! While she’s skewering the modern day obsessions of beauty and celebrity, Foos is also delivering a mystery and action-adventure that somehow mixes family, love, abandonment, and a whole lotta Elvis. And what about that horn? Foos is fearless in her use of a huge symbol placed smack dab in the middle of her main character’s forehead. And yet, somehow, the horn seems less a major plot device than just another piece of an intricate satiric puzzle. In Foos’s whacked-out world vision, Elvis—in white cape and lamb chop sideburns, sitting on his bathroom throne or delivering ham to the inmates—is the least weird of anyone.