Do you know what a guncle is? I didn’t before I read Steven Rowley’s heartwarming new novel. But my children’s beloved guncle – that is, gay uncle – sure did. Rowley hits the sweet spot between hilarity and heart in this endearing charmer about a famous sitcom star who becomes the reluctant, unconventional guardian of his niece and nephew for a summer.
As he demonstrated in “Lily and the Octopus” (2016), his debut novel about an adored pet dachshund’s illness, and “The Editor” (2019), about a struggling young writer whose editor, none other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, helps unlock his career and personal life, Rowley knows how to tug heartstrings. In “The Guncle,” he doesn’t just flirt with sentimentality, he invites it to move right in.
The initial setup is grave, but rest assured that Rowley quickly adds levity. His underlying message is positive. As in “Lily,” he reminds us that love, even though it entails the possibility of painful loss, is well worth the risks. He also reminds us that love comes – wondrously – in multiple forms.
When 9-year-old Maisie and 6-year-old Grant O’Hara lose their mother, their father realizes he needs to deal with a painkiller habit he developed during his wife’s long illness. He asks his older brother, Patrick, eminently unsuitable on the surface, to take the children for the summer while he checks himself into rehab.
GUP (short for Gay Uncle Patrick), as the children call him, is aghast. For one thing, he too is grieving: Before Sara married his brother, she was his best friend from college, as we learn in flashbacks that don’t quite resound. Also, he’s never really gotten over the loss of his partner in a car accident years earlier.
Patrick isn’t sure he’s up to the job. But there’s no way he’s going to let his uptight older sister, Clara, show him up and take charge of the kids. “What they need is some fun,” he tells her. “What they don’t need is someone trying to take their mother’s place.”
Patrick O’Hara is an extravagantly entertaining character who channels actor Nathan Lane, albeit taller and more toned. He’s 40-something, but his semi-retired state, along with his stream of Oscar Wilde quotes, allusions to classic movies, and avuncular edicts make him seem 20 years older.
As GUP explains to the kids, they’re all on hiatus from their old lives. His midcentury home in Palm Springs, California, provides a fabulous setting for the novel. He is a sucker for the trappings of Hollywood success, including a Tesla he never drives and high-end appliances like the Toto Washlet toilet that initially spooks Grant – and leads to a series of (ahem) running gags.
In between brunches at local restaurants and kid-friendly excursions to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and the Cabazon Dinosaurs, the children spend much of the hot summer in their uncle’s pool atop his outlandish floats, which include a flamingo, a Jeff Koons balloon dog, a slice of pizza, a diamond ring, and a lobster their mother gave Patrick to remind him of his East Coast roots.
GUP becomes a practiced hand at applying sunscreen, negotiating dietary battles, (a “vegetarian lacto-ovo pescatarian,” he’s appalled by their predilection for bacon and hotdogs), and fielding questions like “Why do you like boys?” and “Why do you eat fish but not pigs?”
The margins of my reading copy are festooned with what I call vertical Morse code – exclamation points marking delight as GUP, determined to give the kids an “edu-gay-tion,” lets loose with “enough snappy comebacks to populate a screwball comedy.”
Much of the humor involves jabs at Hollywood culture, which fly right over the kids’ heads, along with references to “Grey Gardens” and Dorothy Parker. “Don’t you guys read Variety?” GUP asks when they fail to catch the import of his Golden Globe statuette and a cherished “Porgy and Bess” Playbill. “No, we’re kids,” practical Maisie replies. Later, GUP chides Grant, “Don’t make that face, you’ll need Botox when you’re nine.”
He doles out advice via quotes from Oscar Wilde (“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”) and Guncle Rules. Rule number seven: “In this house we wear what we want, it doesn’t matter if it’s for boys or girls,” he says, as he shows Maisie his caftan collection and reassures her that shorts and T-shirts are a perfectly acceptable replacement for the girls’ bathing suits she loathes. When lisping Grant announces a “loothe tooth,” Patrick quips, “What sort of Dr. Seuss nightmare is this?” Later, he summons “his inner fairy” to round up some loot for under the boy’s pillow because he never keeps cash on hand – nevermind that the treasures are more likely to appeal to a middle-aged thespian than a 6-year-old boy.
Rowley’s protagonist can’t resist a quip – from “Make the yuletide gay” to “No more Mr. Nice Gay!” His new agent’s name, Carrie Everest, unleashes a mountain of puns, peaking with Heidi Himalayas and Amy Adirondacks.
But when grief surfaces, Patrick acknowledges the children’s pain and tells them that while grief never completely goes away, there are ways to alleviate it. They adopt a dog, celebrate Christmas in July, and mark their mother’s birthday with a cake and a cathartic impromptu dance party in the kitchen.
Yes, “The Guncle” is as schmaltzy as a Hollywood tearjerker. But it also glistens with those tears. Rowley pulls it off because his protagonist is – as he might put it – such a gay wit. Could a new comedy series be in the offing?
In addition to the Monitor, Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR and The Wall Street Journal.