Second Hand by Michael Zadoorian.

W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2000, hardcover, $23.95

by Deborah Straw 

Reading Second Hand made me jealous. Jealous of its author, Michael Zadoorian, for having such a great idea. I could have come up with and maybe written this book, I kept thinking. But I didn't; he beat me to it. The novel centers around two elements of life that are important to me-- searching for and acquiring second-hand items and a love of and concern for throw-away animals. Why is it that so many people who love animals also love acquiring stuff? Zadoorian adroitly makes a connection in Second Hand. This is a book made for anyone who loves either or both.

The protagonist, Richard, owns a second-hand store, Satori Junk, near Detroit. This is a junk shop par excellence; it is not an antique shop but rather one where you would find velvet paintings, Hawaiian shirts, snow globes, old records, and more. When he's not single-handedly running the shop, Richard's off at estate sales, garages sales, flea markets, and Salvation Army stores. He'll travel far in search of junk; he tries to be one of the first to arrive at a sale. He's single and lives alone. This is his life.

The minutiae about Richard's treasures is delicious to a fellow junker/reader. Here's just one example from an early morning garage sale foray, one where the customers are handed numbers as they wait on line: "The kitchen: a great old turquoise kitchen clock, in the standard place above the stove. A little cleaning, and that bad boy will sell. Salt and pepper shakes shaped like Squirt pop bottles, chrome wax paper and foil dispense, cool old Mister Thrifty tin bank -- mine, mine, mine." If you're a scavenger, you know that "mine, mine, mine" feeling is a real high.

Near the beginning of the novel, Richard's remaining parent, his mother, dies of cancer, and he and his somewhat estranged (and strange by his standards, i.e., suburban, liking only new things) sister, Linda, are left to deal with the loss and with the contents of the house. Of course, their interests are widely different, so they don't argue much about who gets what. However, during his search in the basement and garage, Richard makes some profound discoveries about his father and about his parents' relationship.

While he's losing one woman, he may be gaining another. Waifish Theresa, described as a "fellow hipster," comes into Richard's shop, more than once. "She's dressed in a short Seventies leather over a Fifties frock with pearls and a black sling mom purse. I must say, this girl has something and it could be style," notes Richard as he watches her. She doesn't buy anything, but they begin talking and hit it off. They share a love of junk: of mismatched chairs, polyester clothing, and cult movies, and they are both lonely.

As Richard hasn't had a relationship in several years, he is needy. But he manages to restrain himself quite admirably. The author has so sympathetically portrayed this eccentric and thoughtful man. We get inside his head, into his neuroses and fears. I feel as though I know Richard although I am not certain of his age or his physical appearance. I'd say 30s and average, but what matters is his quirky mind -- and his obsessions about old, unusual things.

Theresa has another lust, a mission in life -- to nurture and try to save homeless animals. She works at an animal shelter where she must do heinous deeds. If you know how many animals are destroyed every week in shelters around the country, you can figure out what this is. At home, she lives with "eight to ten cats of various sizes, shapes, colors, breeds," which climb all over Theresa and Richard as they get to know each other. Her work, as one can imagine, is wearing her down; this does not improve her ability to sustain relationships of the human kind.

As I don't want to give away the story, suffice it to say that the relationship matures, that Theresa realizes she needs to come to terms with what she must and can do, that they do a little traveling together and reach some revelations -- about loss, love, and work. Where they travel and what they do there -- including a touching, totally believable ceremony that Theresa initiates -- is astonishing. These chapters make me want to take exactly the same trip.

So, embedded in this book, besides the love of junk and of animals, is the love of exotic travel. This is totally unexpected and well done.

The author's tone is often humorous (it reminds me somewhat of David Sedaris, except, of course, this is fiction), although the gist of the book is entirely serious. Zadoorian writes deeply and truly about the importance of old, used things (or cast-off pets) -- about how they may connect us to our families' pasts and other only-imagined pasts.

On the jacket cover, we learn that Michael Zadoorian was born and raised in Detroit; he lives with a wife, lots of junk and a "death-row cat." Although he has published short fiction in prestigious literary journals, this is Zadoorian's first novel, one that will linger with me for quite some time. Good work, Michael, and happy junking to you.

Deborah Straw is a writer, editor and teacher who lives
mostly in Burlington, Vermont, and two to three
months a year in Key West. Straw writes and publishes
essays, book reviews, poems and articles; her first book,
The Natural Wonders of the Florida Keys, was
published in August 1999 by Country Roads Press/NTC

Her book, Why is Cancer Killing Our Pets? How You Can Protect and Treat Your Animal Companion, will be published by Healing Arts Press this November.

Contact Deborah 

David Eide
April 28, 2000
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