Second Hand: A Novel
Reviewed by Marie Black, Fri., May 12, 2000
Second Handby Michael Zadoorian
Norton, 270 pp., $23.95
"Live long and leave wondrous estate sales" advises first-time novelist Michael Zadoorian in the acknowledgements of this sweet, junk-as-life etude on all things second-hand. Zadoorian's protagonist, über-"junker" Richard, owns Satori Junk outside Detroit, and is the part loser/part prophet/part guru supreme of the thrift life. He is also shimmering proof that you can delay coming of age until your thirties.
On the thrift end, Richard discourses on all facets of junking: the thrill of scoring at estate sales (aka "the art of plunder"), the reason he's made being a junker his life's work, and the immortality of the purchase ("The older you get, the more stuff you own. Why? Because stuff protects you. It acts like a ballast ... It's like a flash of forever.") To Richard, his passion for and deep understanding of junk allows him to eschew the must-have-everything-new mentality of the masses and the conveyor-belt existence he sees them eking out (you're born, you buy things, in your thirties you buy more things, you die).
Richard's junk manifesto serves as an anti-bourgeois proclamation to both his sister Linda -- who in this novel stars as the Queen of all Consumerist Myopia -- and others like her. Richard joyfully revels in his second-tier status, with as much "you wanna piece of me" bravado as a shy, geeky guy can muster. But in the process, the path that offers him much insight also begins to render him as stagnant as a fly caught in a windowsill: stuck, unable to fly, resigned to death.
Enter Life with some of its own junk.
The shakedown comes in triplicate: the death of a parent, being dumped by a girl he's crazy about, and the disquieting discovery of what his parents gave up for him. Too many life events in too quick a succession unravel Richard, turning him more philosophical. He also turns violent -- sort of. (He does with a cast-iron frying pan what none other can.) What starts out as a witty testimonial to the underachiever's life emerges as a touching meditation on our objects -- how they define us, how we perceive they protect us, what we sacrifice to have them.
And proving once again that Detroit will never be mistaken for an April-in-Paris kind of place, Zadoorian paints a bleak picture of the city, particularly Satori Junk's environs. In fact, he goes to such lengths to qualify the level of grimy world that Richard calls home, it makes Linda, and the antiseptic "new" world she lives in, seem almost appealing.
At certain points, Second Hand is pedantically confessional. Why Zadoorian decided on mostly redundant, often meaningless headings to introduce each new section ("I Brake for Garage Sales," "Big Evening") is as inexplicable as owning an entire black velvet art collection. Still, Second Hand is a lovely object and all the quest-for-self verbiage that applies to coming-of-age novels applies here as well: This is a sensitive, yearning, and romantic story. What sets the book apart, though, is Richard's attempt to shed the identity he's long-since established for himself in search of a more true enlightenment, or satori. After all, it's possible to come of age at any age.