Blue-light Special on Family Dysfunction


From Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (August 30, 2001)

by C. Dewayne Bevil

Whenever Janet Drummond sees flashing blue lights in her driveway, she knows she is entering a new era -- again. It's been that kind of life for the heroine of "All Families Are Psychotic" by Douglas Coupland.

Janet, 65, has raised three challenging children into adulthood. There's ne'er-do-well Wade, the cause of many police visits; Sarah, who overcomes a birth defect to become an astronaut; and Bryan, a suicidal activist. The home atmosphere was complicated by Janet's abusive, abrasive ex-husband, Ted.

Janet knows a trip to Florida for Sarah's launch into space can't go without incident. It's bound to be Dysfunction Takes a Holiday when the entire family gathers with in-laws and significant others -- including Ted's newer model wife, Nickie, and Bryan's pregnant girlfriend, Shw. Yes, just Shw. Don't ask.

Coupland ("Generation X") certainly has the psychotic part down. He mixes the Drummonds with a wealth of exhausting issues: thalidomide babies, AIDS, corporate sabotage, evil pharmaceutical companies, baby selling, a bloody restaurant holdup, obsession with celebrity, counterfeit memorabilia, kidnapping and a theme park death.

And his representation of Florida isn't always on target. Some of it is stereotypical (blinding heat, touristy T-shirt shops, strip malls); some of it is curiously inaccurate (a monorail exit at Main Street USA? International Boulevard? Traveling from Orlando to Daytona Beach via Cocoa Beach?) He gets it right with the descriptions of our tap water, palmetto bugs and the struggle to pronounce Kissimmee.

Still, it's irritating for the flawed Drummonds to mock Daytona.

Wade says, "So I think Daytona Beach is for all those people who run to the ticket booth first on the morning after a lottery. They know that the really good beaches were swiped by rich people at least a century ago. They know this is the only beach they're ever likely to get -- but they also think that maybe for once they'll get a deep tropical tan instead of burning all pink, and maybe for once the margaritas'll make them witty instead of shrill and boring, and that maybe they'll meet the lay of a lifetime in the hotel lobby, hot and ready to go."

Once the Drummonds are certifiable, Coupland goes on a madcap tear through Carl Hiaasen territory: drug smuggling, car wrecks, swamp encounters and bloody injuries. The characters' weaknesses, physical and emotional, give them the strength to bond. Plus, some mystical healing and a preposterous high-tech rescue give Janet some peace.

At least until the flashing blue lights return.