It would be quite an endeavor to find a piece of literature to which the descriptor “Great American Thanksgiving Novel” could be applied. Thanksgiving narratives are usually reserved for television or the silver screen; most often, they either boil down to tales of dysfunctional families and their bumbling misadventures (think “Planes, Trains & Automobiles”) or heartwarming reflections (more “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”) on the “true meaning” of a holiday where actually giving thanks is quickly overshadowed by overeating and then passing out while watching the annual Macy’s parade or Lions game. With his sophomore novel “Start Without Me,” however, author Joshua Max Feldman aims to translate the classic Thanksgiving story to the page while simultaneously abandoning all of its conventional hallmarks.
The unfamiliar lens through which “Start Without Me” explores the traditional Thanksgiving familial gathering is immediately made evident by its main characters. Adam is a recovering alcoholic whose bygone career as a bandmate and its accompanying rockstar lifestyle left him a shell of the vivacious musical prodigy he once was, and Marissa is an overworked flight attendant whose troubled marriage hangs by a very flimsy thread. On one cold Thanksgiving Day, Adam has already abandoned yet another family get-together that he was invited to after sobering up and convincing them he’d changed, and Marissa is distraught by the knowledge that she is pregnant from an impetuous one-night stand with her high-school boyfriend. In spite of all that, a chance meeting of these two imperfect strangers at an airport hotel restaurant is the beginning of their unlikely odyssey across New England as they both attempt to come to terms with their past and make sense of the future that lies ahead of them.
Marissa’s attempt to chauffeur Adam back to his family is quickly thrown off course by a confrontational run-in with Adam’s sister at a gas station, where Adam is directly convinced that no one in his family was ready for him to appear in their lives again. So, the pair decide to try their luck with the Thanksgiving meal that Marissa has been dreading to attend. The following extended scene at the Russells’ (Marissa’s husband’s family) progressively ramps up in tension, yet feels somewhat contrived just for the sake of discussing complex subjects like race, gender, sexuality and class. Marissa’s in-laws are quite a unique couple (a Black man and a Jewish woman firmly ensconced in the upper class), but it appears that Feldman only writes in these diverse characters and their interactions with Marissa and Adam to shoehorn in dialogue that addresses the aforementioned contentious topics. Although the novel falters at points like those, it shines when it shifts its focus toward Adam and Marissa’s attempts to deal with questions of love and choice while they are both at rock bottom.
The best scenes in “Start Without Me” highlight characters whose Thanksgivings are as glum as those of he two main characters: a disgruntled waitress whose mother just passed away, a husband who would rather spend his holiday camped out in front of Walmart, Marissa’s deadbeat mom and her new pothead boyfriend. Even the Russells barely act like a family, as they would rather find a random man on Craigslist to prepare their meal and have a photographer take faux candids instead of actually loving each other and coming to terms with what it truly means to be a family. By concentrating on these flawed characters instead of the cheery and happy people that normally populate Thanksgiving stories, Feldman is able to nail themes of loneliness and depression by juxtaposing them with a holiday centered around togetherness.
The dichotomy between two of the Thanksgiving meals consumed during the novel — an undercooked, pre-made, so-called feast and a cold bucket of KFC — are illustrative. People can either maintain an insecure façade while brushing their problems under the rug, or they can embrace who they really are and proudly display that person to others, especially their family members. While “Start Without Me” wraps up a little too quickly and neatly without fully developing its ideas, it is an introspective read that explores the struggles to know and to accept one’s true self.