Book Review: ‘With Teeth,’ by Kristen Arnett

By Kristen Arnett

He’s only a kid, but Samson is already burdened with a troublesome family member: His mother, Sammie, suffers from being on the non-autistic spectrum. He cannot meet her support needs for platitudes and eye contact, and so he is challenged by her difficult behavior. Samson’s own neurotype is unnamed but heavily autistic-coded: He has sensory issues with food, textures, touch; he doesn’t easily intuit neurotypical social norms; he rarely smiles, as far as his mother can perceive (though we must make allowances for her impairments). That mother, Sammie, grew up closeted, with conservative parents, and is now raising Samson with her wife, Monika. Kristen Arnett’s second novel, “With Teeth,” is mostly about Sammie.

Her son isn’t the only thing on her mind: There’s her faltering marriage to Monika, a high-flying breadwinner; her growing relationship with Lenore, a divorcée she swigs contraband spirits with at their kids’ swim practice; the neighbor she enviously stalks; her hot therapist.

Arnett’s humor jets throughout and is funniest when it’s curt: “Yelling that you weren’t crazy made a person seem crazy, in her opinion.” Continuing her previous focus on lesbian life in Florida — in the story collection “Felt in the Jaw” and her first novel, “Mostly Dead Things” — here Arnett gives a layered account of Sammie’s world: her youthful partying and headlong romance with Monika, the wives’ lingering domestic tenderness even now, the offensively straight parenting groups, the diffidence of “hiding out in the back corner of the lesbian bar,” single. At every step, Sammie wonders if she’s not just a bad person, but a bad ambassador. Arnett’s account of self-imposed L.G.B.T. respectability politics is poignant: How can we be human without reflecting badly on others in the community, when our failures already seem, “for lots of folks … like a foregone conclusion?”

Between third-person chapters told from Sammie’s perspective, we get short, italicized accounts from side characters (Lenore, a new lover, a bowling alley manager), each complicating the plot with their gloriously unreliable takes on it. Finally Sammie writes two letters directly to her son, in a last-ditch attempt to connect with him.

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