In What Else Do You Want?, author J. V. Miller offers a beautifully written, deeply felt, loving portrait of the lives of an immigrant Ruthenian (you have the internet, look it up!) family in America. They are working-class, living in a small mill town on New York’s south-central border. The book begins in the early 1960s with Joe and Ann and their three pre-teen sons living in a small apartment in the house owned by Ann’s parents, who live in the basement. Yellowed linoleum and threadbare upholstery suggest the decor.
The sons were born two years apart. Joey is the oldest and suffers a learning disability which marks him forever as being “different.” Johnny is the middle son and, I should point out, the principal narrator of the book. Michael is the youngest. Their mother depressingly shuffles around the house in fuzzy pink bunny slippers, struggling to endure the numbing, unending demands of daily housework.
In the book’s opening two chapters, the young boys submit to the family’s rituals, routinely prodded, corrected, and scolded by their elders. They find relief in verbally jabbing one another, (though Joey, impaired, less so) generating rude noises and offering an occasional shot to the ribs. An incredibly funny scene in this chapter has the boys washing the family’s car, a Chevy Biscayne, under the strict supervision of their father, while the boys’ grandfather looks on as an added layer of criticism. Out of nowhere, success in turning on and off a lawn spigot becomes a defining testy and, for the reader, stuff of comedy.
The book’s third chapter takes place a decade or so later. By this time John is a college student and has been offered a plane ticket to visit his mother’s brothers George and John in California. It is a college break at the school John has been attending in upstate New York. To John, seeing Los Angeles and visiting these uncles seems a better deal than hanging out at a deserted campus or returning home for an awkward visit with his insular parents. In no way could John anticipate the oddity of all that follows on this trip, the kind of stuff that happens but grows more remarkable on reflection with the passage of time.
The book’s fourth chapter takes place the following year when George is seriously ill and John’s grandmother flies to California to visit him in the hospital. There are a few funny moments in this chapter but the deeper content is the mother/grandmother dreamily pondering the passage of time, reliving briefly sweet memories of her late husband and, ultimately, weighing whether coming to America had ended up a cruel joke, a colossal mistake.
The final two chapters of What Else Do You Want? include a chapter in which John, now in his mid-40s, joins his brother Joe and two of Joe’s “special” friends to attend a minor league hockey game, (Joe states “We’re playing the Utica Devils Nick, and you know them Devils can be pretty devilish Nick.”) and a chapter in verse form where John and his wife call John’s father, now 80, to announce a visit coming three weeks hence. The father immediately focuses on the details of the breakfast buffet he plans to take them to: “I’ve got a coupon good till the twenty-sixth; a dollar off on each breakfast.” Many of you who have dealt with elderly relatives will be able to relate.
In the end, I am pleased to say I enjoyed reading this book. I liked the structure of doling out its few stories like selected pages from a family photo album. Finally, while I enjoyed the humorous scenes and characters, what I valued more was how each of the individuals were treasured fo who they were, loved and valued as part of the fabric of family, at times childishly amusing in their own way, but ultimately treated with great tenderness and respect. Seeing a family with such appreciation is a special gift. Greg Ramsey