By Ann Gelder
Bona Fide Books, 2014
It’s 1986, and Chernobyl, the Challenger explosion, and Iran-Contra have made Americans nervous. Specifically Jackie Majesky, the protagonist of Ann Gelder’s debut novel, Bigfoot and the Baby. Jackie’s a newly born-again Christian and mother of an infant who worries that her older daughter, Katie, a fledgling singer in a punk rock band, and husband Kyle, who’s left the police force to pursue a career as an impersonator, won’t be saved.
She’s also worried about their finances. Since Kyle’s new career has less momentum than a sloth, Jackie finds a job at CarlsMart, a new discount box store and one of the few employment nerves of their Californian desert town. When Jackie impresses its CEO, Harry Ricker, he offers her the opportunity of a lifetime—to co-direct CarlsMart’s newest venture, Christmas Every Day. Instead of “buyers,” CarlsMart customers become “givers,” buying their friends and neighbors (and even strangers) gifts, gifts that of course come from CarlsMart stores. The gifts are tracked, and the best “givers” in America will win a spot in CarlMart’s new planned, domed community—a town in the middle of the desert. A town called—what else?—Christmastown, with all the saccharine artifice of, say, a Disney theme park. There’s only one catch: Harry wants the Majesky’s young daughter, Molly, to become the face of Christmas Every Day.
There are a few other catches, of course. Does salvation-through-shopping actually work? There’s nothing more American than the big Cs–Christianity and capitalism, and their tentacles form a holy trinity with another big C—CarlsMart. Gelder is eerily prescient in setting this novel in the eighties, well before Wal-Mart and Target drove mom-and-pop business to their knees (and who doesn’t think Disney will roll out some planned retirement communities around the corner), albeit she has the benefit of hindsight. Still, Bigfoot is a meditation on consumerism and spirituality that’s sorely needed.
Gelder accomplishes this meditation through a cast of characters—Kyle’s, Katie’s, and even Harry’s points of view are included, although it’s clearly Jackie who drives the novel (and commands most of our sympathy). She’s a sort of evangelical Mrs. Dalloway, whose flurry of activity makes her believe she’s running toward something rather than away. (As Gelder so aptly describes it, “Last November Jackie had found the Lord, and since then a digital clock had been glowing in her mind like a gathering headache.”)
Gelder’s writing crackles almost as hot as the Majecky’s desert town of Morton, California, with lines like “a cold, dense cloud stretches over the valley and lies there, like a drugged cat, until spring” and “she shriveled into her son’s arms like a scrap of paper in a campfire.” It’s assured, with a gentle and teasing bite, and compliments the almost-surrealistic premise of a utopian society stocked full of the world’s most prolific shoppers.
There are a few subplots—an affair, daughter Katie’s entanglement with an older, damaged vet, and a specter of bigfoot sightings, mostly chronicled through a television show that Kyle and daughter Katie watch called “The Weird Frontier,” a mashup of beloved paranormal and missing person shows of the 70s and 80s, like “In Search of” and “Unsolved Mysteries,” but these sometimes don’t fire on all cylinders. The real action is in Christmastown, where it should be.
One small complaint is that Gelder doesn’t really use the richness of 80s cold war paranoia, pop culture, and televangelistic flavor of the time to add texture to an already-interesting premise. The fallout of Chernobyl in the beginning feels more like a name drop, and there’s no sense of how 1986 America is different (or similar) to the one in which we live now—in fact, the novel easily could be set in the present without losing anything, which may make the reader wonder why this specific time was chosen in the first place. In the end, though, Bigfoot and the Baby tackles—with sharp humor and a fantastic set piece—what it means to feel fulfilled.-Jen Michalski