Pickle’s Progress is a quintessential modern New York City novel. In it, Marcia Butler gives us identical twin brothers and the women in their lives. But it’s much more dysfunctional and convoluted than that. Fundamentally, that’s a good thing. Butler’s taut writing style connects these people to their city and adds a hearty dose of black humor.
Stan and Pickle McArdle take sibling rivalries to an skyscraper level. As twins, they’ve been compared for every second of their lives. First it was their mother, then Stan’s wife Karen. But truthfully, everyone in their orbit finds them impossible to tell apart, and yet radically different in personality. To start, Stan is an architect and Pickle is a cop. Who’s ever heard of a cop called Pickle? Wanting that answer alone drove me to read more.
In the opening pages, the three family members end up at the scene of a planned double suicide jump from the George Washington Bridge. Except only one person jumped. The other person is Junie, who unintentionally upends everyone’s life. Karen invites Junie to stay with her and Stan. The couple is also recovering from the injuries sustained when their car crashed on the bridge. Plus, they were roaring drunk, so Pickle arrives to fix the scene from a police perspective.
As the story progresses, Pickle pushes his brother and sister-in-law to honor their agreement about renovations on the brownstone they co-own. He’d like to move in, since he owns half of it. What seem like small events in the beginning are just a mask for the underlying story, which starts to become clear about midway through the novel. Then Butler starts throwing curve balls. She only stops on the last page.
Pickle’s Progress isn’t an epic. It isn’t filled with a large cast of characters, and its primary timeline isn’t long. At its heart are Pickle, Stan, Karen, and Junie. It’s about their relationships, pure and simple. Except when it isn’t simple, which is pretty much always.
Pickle’s Progress doesn’t break your heart into tiny pieces. But Butler pulls heartstrings just the same. And as soon as she builds sympathy for a character, she reveals something that changes your mind. Over and over.
Listening to Butler speak about the book yesterday, it’s clear this is a love letter to her city. She’s included some of her favorite places, some of which are iconic while others are more obscure. Through her characters, she also shows us that relationships are like cities—there’s always a dark underbelly. The tourist spots might be bright and shiny, but head to where real people live and it’s grittier. Like traveling, we can only be tourists in another person’s relationship.
Comparisons to other New York City novels
Yes, I borrowed and recreated a graphic meme often used for A Little Life. That’s because I see some parallels between the two. In Pickle’s Progress, like Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life, the story centers fully on four characters. None of them are fully functional beings—and yet, they are all intensely human. Unlike A Little Life, Pickle’s Progress doesn’t have venti-sized anguish, which might be considered an advantage by some readers.
Another recent book that ramped up my NYC wanderlust was John Freeman Gill’s The Gargoyle Hunters. There’s quite a lot of underbelly in Gill’s work, since the main characters are essentially thieves. But Pickle’s Progress is considerably more grown up, since its primary relationships are among peers rather than Gargoyle’s parent-child relationships. And yet, Butler’s twins have mother issues. So perhaps there are more connections than it seems on the surface.
I’m thinking I’ll just start rummaging through my shelves for more New York City based novels. And possibly hop a train up there for a visit!
Meeting the author
I liked Marcia Butler’s memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, quite a lot. In fact, we’ve followed each other on Instagram since my review of her first book.
When I found that she’d be at the 2019 Gaithersburg, MD book festival, which isn’t too far from me, I thought it’d be fun to meet her in person. Amazingly, she recognized me from IG, which I thought was extra generous. And she’s just as lovely in person as she is in social media. Here’s a pic of us together.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Central Avenue Publishing, and the author for the digital ARC in exchange for this honest review.