The Jerk You Hate to Love in Zoe Heller’s Everything You Know
To put it politely, Willy Muller is a jerk. He is also a drunk, a deadbeat, a hack writer, a lousy son, a lousier father, and a murderer (more or less). He is a great character, the antihero at the diseased heart of Zoe Heller's recently re-released debut novel, Everything You Know. Willy is a British expat adrift in Los Angeles, where the sun is hard and white, and people clutch their steering wheels too tightly. Ravaged and raging, he is the kind of character that both authors and readers love.
What makes Everything You Know such a satisfying romp is not its originality; rather, it is the delicate and wickedly funny way that Heller makes her germophobic protagonist sympathetic even as the situation gets worse. Like, when Willy's long-suffering girlfriend flies to meet him in Mexico, only to discover that he had invited another woman in her absence. Or when Willy accuses his drunken houseguest of committing a fairly disgusting act, just before realizing that his accusation was very, very wrong.
We all tell ourselves stories about who we are. Willy has come to see himself as a cad, wondering with amazement if he really is as impossibly evil as the thing he is about to do next. But, when he comes into the possession of his late daughter's diaries, suddenly, the mirror starts telling him a different story. As Heller juxtaposes Willy's very flawed life with his daughter's -- a life very flawed in different ways -- he, and we, have a chance to consider our own weaknesses, and how we might save ourselves. As Meir Rosenblatt, Willy's aging business manager observes, "Only when you die do you run out of chances to be good."
On the big screen, Willy might have gleefully been played by Jack Nicholson in his prime. We cringe to watch him, but we peek through our fingers to see what he will do next. Also, we hope against hope that he might suddenly find redemption -- which he does, perhaps, in his own Willy way. Like Martin Amis, Heller's worldview is brilliantly scathing. You might not want to live there, but it's certainly worth the visit.