Book review of God Bless You, Otis Spunkmeyer by Joseph Earl Thomas

Emergency rooms often resemble war zones, with patients who have ghastly injuries and medical personnel needing to make quick decisions. Joseph should know: An employee at an understaffed trauma center in Philadelphia—or, as he calls it, a “northeastern middling city”—he’s also an Iraq War veteran. And he has a complicated family life with its own set of distresses, including a series of ex-lovers and a mother who once asked him to kill her boyfriend. The memoirist Joseph Earl Thomas (Sink) integrates all of these elements in his dazzling debut novel, God Bless You, Otis Spunkmeyer.

Yes, that Otis Spunkmeyer, the purveyor of cookies and muffins. Pastries play a supporting role in this work, both as junk food Joseph and fellow soldiers enjoyed in Iraq, “the only good thing we got for free besides tinnitus,” and as snacks proffered to emergency room patients. The treats provide comfort of a sort to ease the pain of the challenges Joseph, his patients, his family and his colleagues have to face.

Joseph shares custody of his children with an ex-spouse but has to pay child support. His father, who abandoned his family long ago, is so unfamiliar to Joseph that he and his mother have to look up his father’s mugshot online to recall what he looks like. And there’s Joseph’s mother, who was addicted to cocaine when he was young and who is often incarcerated, “most prominently for drug possession, prostitution, and then assault.”

Thomas expertly employs a stream-of-consciousness style, rapidly toggling between encounters with family, the patients who come through the ER, and Joseph’s coworkers, among them Ray, who wants to be an artist and served beside Joseph overseas. The style seamlessly shifts as well, blending dialogue and slang into formal, literary prose. Graphic material—detailed depictions of injuries and of sex—is handled beautifully and feels true to the characters.

The result is a kaleidoscopic tour through Joseph’s eventful life. God Bless You, Otis Spunkmeyer is an intricate and brave debut that readers will savor.

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