Book Review: Balloon Dog by Daniel Paisner

Daniel Paisners' Balloon Dog is a darkly comic tale of longing and legacy, one that prompts readers to consider what it means to leave a mark and what it takes to be swept up in the same currents that move almost everyone else. Check out Doreen Sheridan's review!

Lem Devlin has had it with being surrounded by art that costs more than his entire life. Working for the Fine Artemis shipping and storage company, he doesn’t mind so much the value assigned to the beauty he sees every day. What bothers him is the casual consumerism that buys an extravagant work of art then treats it as a commodity, a mere line in a portfolio:

So Lem grabbed at this one stupid, beautiful, graceless idea. This uncivilized idea. Wasn’t just a high-end art theft, how he saw it. Wasn’t just an opportunity. No, it was also a statement, a protest–his way of saying, “Hey, this shit is fucked.” Ten million dollars for a giant-ass balloon dog, maybe more, probably more, and the dude who buys it isn’t even around to look at it.


What the fuck is that?

His company is tasked with the seasonal construction and deconstruction of Jeff Koontz’s Balloon Dog sculpture on the grounds of a Park City, Utah private estate. Lem figures that if he can assemble a team and swoop in on the disassembly process a week early, that’ll give him a head start on hiding the sculpture till he can find a buyer for it, one who’ll actually appreciate the art as it’s meant to be viewed. Plus, it’s not like the current owner will be around to see him steal it. Unfortunately for Lem’s best laid plans though, a whole gaggle of people are hanging around the supposedly closed summer estate on the day he rolls up with his crew.

One of these people is writer Harrison Klott, who published a debut novel to widespread acclaim some years ago yet has done little in publishing since. He pays the bills by writing ad copy for a plastic surgeon, but spends most of his days worrying about his adolescent children and fantasizing about the beautiful Shari Braverman, a Facebook acquaintance whose family attends the same synagogue as his. When his father unexpectedly bequeaths him a large stack of cash, he isn’t sure what to do with the money, or even how to tell his wife Marjorie about it. Instead he squirrels it away in various locations around their house, feeling a vague surprise when it eventually fades from the forefront of his mind:

It’s there and it’s not there, all at once. It’s changed him and it hasn’t changed him. Basically, the money went from all he thought about to something that just <i>was</i>, almost as if he has momentarily misplaced the idea of it, and now that he’s been uncomfortably middle-seated on a Wednesday afternoon Delta flight from JFK to Salt Lake City he takes the time to consider the shift. Really, he wants to understand what the money has meant to him these past couple months, what it might mean to him going forward, if it means anything at all.

As Lem and Harrison’s paths cross, the two men develop a kinship that transcends class and expectations, even as they engage in a cat and mouse game for survival. But perhaps the greatest issue they must grapple with is the nature of art and its price. What is the value of art kept away from the world? And how much can anyone pay for inspiration or, even more urgently, their freedom?

This literary crime novel muses on the unexpected natures of both crime and art, as our protagonists—and, in separate viewpoint chapters, Marjorie and Shari—come to grips with the impermanence of life plans and what they can do to regain some control, if any, of their desired destinies. Wickedly humorous and often deprecatingly blunt, Balloon Dog is a critique of the upper classes that also skewers the pettiness and ennui of the less rich as they grapple with their midlife crises via infidelities and law-breaking, major and minor. Marjorie perhaps is the most sympathetic character here. She looks back on her life and wonders how the things she once appreciated have fallen to the wayside (though, to be honest, the answer is via raising children and having to cope with their varied and changeable needs).

Overall, Daniel Paisner’s fourth solo novel is a stylish meditation on the place of disobedience, whether explicitly turned into art or otherwise, in the lives of modern, middle-aged people doing the best they can in uncertain times. 

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