The Coast of AkronAs a matter of full disclosure, I will freely admit that I have never taken an art history class. I think I took art appreciation in fourth grade as part of my snooty private school education, but am otherwise as clueless about “art” as any mouth-breathing schmendrik you’d pull out of your local lottery ticket outlet. It’s not to say that I can’t appreciate art, but I have very little knowledge around movements, meanings and biographies. It’s not to say that one needs that base in order to like paintings, but when reading a book that clearly has subtext about the state of art in the modern world and blah blah blah, it would probably help as a prerequisite. So goes The Coast of Akron, a book about a highly dysfunctional family, whose patriarch is a relatively famous painter, but is even a more famous egoist. The plot pretty much follows the post modern device of taking a chunk of time leading up to a big event, narrating from a couple different perspectives and filling in back stories via old diary writings. If there’s one issue I found with this, it was the diary entries, which go from very personal and self-conscious in the beginning to more broad and detached later on–almost as if the author decided “fuck it, I know I’m just using this as a plot device, so forget the pretense and let’s just do it.” In other words, the diary entries go from internal and observational to plot propelling, rife with actual quoted dialogue and whatnot. Kind of weird, in my opinion. Otherwise Miller does a good job of capturing her different characters’ voices both in narrative and descriptive detail. Her best character by far is the over the top Fergus, who manages to befriend and then alienate all who enter his domain. High school pals with Jenny, he becomes obsessive and drives her away after she moves to London to pursue her strange artistic endeavor of studying just the one Goya painting, The Manikin. She eventually meets Lowell, who becomes the aforementioned artist, as well as her husband. They have a daughter, Merit, and eventually move, due to lack of money, back to Akron to live with Fergus. And then Fergus and Lowell become lovers, things go all haywire and Jenny leaves with Merit. Merit grows up and marries Wyatt, who already has a daughter from a previous marriage, Carolyn. And thus we have the Haven family and its dangling parts. The story is narrated in equal parts by Fergus, Merit (as an adult) and Jenny’s old diaries. At the heart of the story is the artwork of Lowell, all of which are just self-portraits of himself dressed as famous people from history and literature, as well as him on other lame poses. The dysfunction amongst the family members comes not only from their overbearing nature, bisexuality and shifting allegiances to one another, but also from a deep dark secret revolving around Lowell, Jenny and the artwork that surrounds them. This whole arrangement has completely damaged Merit and her relationships with anyone and everyone. The story kind of wanders around, has its ups and downs, gets kind of funny at times when Fergus is doing his snobby, flamboyant thing, but ultimately goes absolutely nowhere. In fact, the ending was one of the most abrupt and oddball I’ve read in a quite while. Right in the middle of the big ending, the big denouement, the thing just…