North American readers care inordinately that fictional characters be likable. This preference is strange, given that few real people are thoroughly nice and that those few aren’t interesting. Surely what actually matters is that characters clear this vital hurdle: that they be interesting.
I can still hear his voice saying that, though I was not present when he did. He was my friend's dad, lived a block away. I can't remember my friend's voice, since he was a year older than me and we stopped playing together by the time we got into grade school. I have not even seen his son's face since I was 13, but I've seen E. a few times in the intervening years, and his voice is still there. Slightly nasal, always kind.
What I remember most, with almost a pang of guilt, was chasing him with my friends early one evening in 1987 or so, when he ran by my house in that Santa outfit. There was several inches of snow on the ground and the packing was great, so we bombarded him with snowballs for about a block.
Now, he got into the tangle, too. He threw some back at us. We weren't the ones hidden behind beards, and he knew each of us by name, so there were probably no hard feelings. Even still, there was something a little too boyish--in the bad sense--that our instinct was to go after the guy who was different. My guess is that, however farcical and even silly our snow-ball assault was, it resembled worse incidents in his seasonal jogs. The shouts were similar from vulgar ones that came from cars driven by older kids and adults, the snow balls were maybe similar to ones thrown harder by older, meaner kids. But maybe my imagination is too dark.
Was E. rare? Very. Does he clear that vital hurdle Messud spoke of above? Well, I'm fascinated by a guy who runs his own business behind the handle of a lawn-mower--after his day job is finished. I sure want to know what makes a guy run each December in a Santa suit, despite all the lobbed snowballs and insults.* I'd like to know what E. felt when parishioners at my old church eventually decided that no, a Catholic grade school was no place for a homeless shelter. Not even once a week.
Now, I know what Messud is saying. Every serious fan of comedy cringes when the raunchy movie slows down to let us know that these otherwise boorish, oafish drunks are really just looking for love and happiness. (Old School, for example.) The wish that fictional characters be likeable has often given pop-culture, North American and otherwise, some facile results. And I definitely am not arguing for any Chicken Soup for the Soul characters to spring up from the page and inspire us to be better, happier people. I just think, critically speaking, the premise in the second sentence of the paragraph I quoted above is a load of crap.
If anything, serious literature is awash in unlikeable characters. If I lived with people like those found in a typical literary journal or literary novel, I'd need serious therapy. Our creative writing classes are crammed with cliches and edicts from on-high that reinforce the supposed superiority of darkness. They're quasi-religious commandments lodged in our brains, alongside "Show, don't tell" and "Kill all your darlings," as the right way to approach story telling. Take Tolstoy's famous opening-line, "Happy families are all alike." That's a catchy line from one of the greatest, but I don't buy it. Especially since happy families are rarer than happy individuals. Find me a happy family, and I'd be willing to spend a few thousand pages with them.**
Messud and I are in agreement on one thing: few real people are thoroughly nice. But to me, that's exactly what makes E. is so interesting.
*Sure, I am assuming those insults are flung at him, but I've been a runner all my life. You would not believe what dumb young men shout from cars even when you are not dressed like a magical character.
**If, rather than a pithy remark, you'd like an actual recommendation for some decent literary portrait of happiness, I recommend John Updike's short story, "The Happiest I've Been." When I first read it, I was so used to having my commute ruined by contemporary stories that I assumed the title was ironic.