Winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor
National Bestseller • Wall Street Journal Bestseller • USA Today Bestseller
An NPR Book of the Year
Finalist for the 2021 Goodreads Choice Awards
From the bestselling author of Lily and the Octopus and The Editor comes a warm and deeply funny novel about a once-famous gay sitcom star whose unexpected family tragedy leaves him with his niece and nephew for the summer.
Patrick, or Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP, for short), has always loved his niece, Maisie, and nephew, Grant. That is, he loves spending time with them when they come out to Palm Springs for weeklong visits, or when he heads home to Connecticut for the holidays. But in terms of caretaking and relating to two children, no matter how adorable, Patrick is, honestly, overwhelmed.
So when tragedy strikes and Maisie and Grant lose their mother and Patrick's brother has a health crisis of his own, Patrick finds himself suddenly taking on the role of primary guardian. Despite having a set of "Guncle Rules" ready to go, Patrick has no idea what to expect, having spent years barely holding on after the loss of his great love, a somewhat-stalled acting career, and a lifestyle not-so-suited to a six- and a nine-year-old. Quickly realizing that parenting--even if temporary--isn't solved with treats and jokes, Patrick's eyes are opened to a new sense of responsibility, and the realization that, sometimes, even being larger than life means you're unfailingly human.
With the humor and heart we've come to expect from bestselling author Steven Rowley, The Guncle is a moving tribute to the power of love, patience, and family in even the most trying of times.
Release date: May 25, 2021
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Print pages: 336
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
At 8:38 a.m., the temperature was already hovering in the high eighties, on its way north of one hundred-unusual perhaps for May, but not unheard of. The desert sky was cloudless, a vibrant cobalt blue you wouldn't believe was real until you spent enough time underneath it to ensure it wasn't some sort of Hollywood effect. Patrick O'Hara stood curbside in front of the small airport, lost. The mountains surrounding Palm Springs were herculean; they worked overtime to hold back all kinds of weather-clouds, rain, humidity-everything except for wind, which accounted for the majestic windmills that stood like palace guards at the entrance to the Coachella Valley. The palm trees waved gently in the breeze, but did not so much as bend. In this moment, Patrick wished he had even a fraction of their strength.
An old Chevrolet convertible in robin's egg blue eased past him, pausing at the speed bump, the driver taking extra care not to scrape the automobile's low carriage. It hiccuped over the barrier, and then resumed a reasonable speed around the corner away from the terminal, following a line of dignified palm trees toward the airport exit like it was driving into an antiquarian postcard. It's something Patrick loved about Palm Springs, the city's timelessness. The days were long, and so clean with sunlight it was impossible to distinguish one from the next. For four years now he'd been holed up in his midcentury desert estate, the one he'd purchased with his TV money (handsome compensation for costarring in nine humiliating seasons of The People Upstairs, plus syndication, plus streaming, plus a surprisingly robust run in France), in the aptly named Movie Colony neighborhood south of Tamarisk Road. It wasn't his intent to cut himself off from the world so completely, but the city invited it. In the old studio days, actors who were under contract were not allowed to travel more than one hundred miles from Los Angeles in case a picture needed them on short notice. Palm Springs sat exactly on that line, one hundred miles as the crow flies; it became an escape-as far away as actors dared go.
When he first relocated, Patrick invited friends to visit, people in the industry mostly-oddballs he'd collected over a decade and a half in Hollywood. Sara once brought the kids for a week and they laughed and splashed in the pool like no time had passed; she made fun of him and his celebrity in the way only old friends could. Then, slowly over time, he stopped reaching out. And people stopped coming. Sara had legitimate reasons, but others just seemed to forget he existed at all. Those who observed his trickling visitors, like JED, the gay throuple who lived in the house behind his, went so far as to call him a recluse. John, Eduardo, and Dwayne would pop their grinning faces over the wall that divided their properties with friendly (but barbed) taunts, like a Snap, Crackle, and Pop who fucked. His housekeeper, Rosa, encouraged him to meet someone. "Mr. Patrick. Why you have this house all alone?" The answer was complicated and he skirted around it, knowing if he moped she would feel sorry for him and make his favorite ceviche. But to Patrick, his situation wasn't that dire. He was simply . . . done. For nine years he had given a side of himself to the world, and what he had left he owed no one.
Patrick slung his baseball cap low over his eyes as a man pulled his Lexus into a white zone, hopped out of his idling car, and said goodbye to a friend or business associate with a hearty handshake. Patrick nodded to the friend as he walked past, and was rewarded with a smack from the man's three-racket Wilson tennis bag as he slung it over his shoulder. Patrick was invisible. Anonymity, as it turns out, was easy enough; it had been just long enough since he'd been in the public eye. As for the rest, the trick was not to overdo it. A disguise had to be ordinary. Hat and sunglasses. Navy shirt, not too fitted. (A physique always drew eyes.) Anything more looked like you were trying to hide, and that invited attention. Nod hello, look the other way. It almost always did the trick.
Patrick pulled out his phone and texted his brother, Greg. I'm on my way.
The calls began just after midnight, but he'd had his phone set to do not disturb. He awoke early to thirteen missed calls (never a good number) from his parents and a fourteenth from Greg; no one left a message longer than "Call me," and Greg had not left one at all. It was a fight he'd had with his mother years back when she phoned at some ungodly hour to inform him his father was having a stroke; he returned her call in the morning.
"Where were you last night when I needed you?" his mother had asked.
"In bed, where most people are."
"The phone doesn't wake you up?"
"I have it programmed not to ring before seven a.m."
"What if there's an emergency?"
"If there's an emergency, I'll deal with it better on a full night's sleep." The logic seemed infallible to Patrick. And almost as if to prove his point, his father's "stroke" turned out to be a mild case of Bell's palsy.
Last night, however, the calls were warranted. After a valiant two-and-a-half-year battle, Sara had quietly slipped away. A loud roar rumbled then pierced the sky as a plane took off down the runway. Patrick rattled as the sidewalk vibrated, but he was otherwise numb. This wasn't happening. Not a second time. Not after Joe. And this loss of Sara was coupled with guilt. He promised when they'd met that he would never let her go. And then life intervened. She went north and married his brother. He went west and found fame on TV. And slowly, over time, he did.
Patrick glanced down at his suitcase, almost surprised to see it there. He had no memory of packing it. Here he was, about to board a plane for the first time in years, something he used to do all the time. Even the network's private plane once or twice when they needed the cast in New York to appear together on Good Morning America or, god help him, The View. Now he was nervous, his stomach brittle. He told himself it was the occasion as much as the flight, not that it mattered. Patrick adjusted his aviators; he turned and walked inside the airport, letting the sliding glass doors open for him then close, reflecting the mountains behind him.
Baggage claim. PatrickÕs eyes scanned right past Greg to a cluster of gossiping flight attendants before recognition set in. He was expecting his father to fetch him in Hartford and so was surprised to find his brother on the other side of the glass. Greg looked depleted, thin; even from fifty feet away Patrick could read his distress-the younger brother suddenly older, as if heÕd passed through some weird vortex and aged a decade in the however many years it had been since heÕd seen him last.
When Greg spotted him, Patrick's carry-on slipped off his shoulder, the strap catching on his elbow, the bag stopping mere inches from the ground; he attempted a feeble wave. They stood there, two brothers, confused, a glass wall between them, like Patrick might bang on the glass and reenact the ending to The Graduate. But he didn't. Patrick knew; he'd seen the movie dozens of times. It might feel good in the moment, but the harsh realities of life lay ahead.
Patrick made his way through the sliding doors, past the sign that said no reentry, straight for his younger brother, hugging him tight, holding the back of his head, his fingers buried deep in Greg's hair. "I'm sorry," he whispered. Greg was trembling. He squeezed his brother until Greg fell limp, free of emotion, for a fleeting second at least. "I'm here."
They waited for Patrick's checked bag in silence; the parade of black luggage moved at a funereal pace along the conveyor belt, town cars full of mourners in procession. They would be in such a motorcade in a few days' time. Neither brother said much on their way to the parking garage, not when Greg struggled to find the parking ticket at the prepay machine, except to usher those in line behind them to go ahead (he had absentmindedly tucked the ticket in his wallet), nor when he couldn't remember on which level he had parked the car. Patrick stayed calm and even grabbed his brother's hand when he started to turn like an animal, in rapid, panicked circles.
"Shhhh. We'll find it," he whispered.
"THAT'S HOW YOU DO IT!" The voice came from around a concrete pylon, some idiot, breaking their moment. Patrick reflexively waved as if that were the first time anyone was clever enough to shout that at him and not the eleventy millionth. That's how you do it! was the catchphrase that made him a breakout character on his ABC sitcom in the back half of season two. He'd delivered it faithfully at least once an episode since, and the studio audience-usually shapeless Midwesterners in oversized clothing who couldn't get into The Price Is Right-always went wild; the second banana, for a time at least, eclipsing in popularity the top. "You're that guy, right? What happened to you?"
The question reverberated through the parking structure. The People Upstairs was the last sitcom that defined the era of network television; a special season three episode aired after the Super Bowl. The cast was on the cover of People magazine. Even a Golden Globe, for Patrick. Now people watched television in three-minute increments on their phones, if they watched anything at all. More often than not they preferred to watch themselves, making videos with filters that softened their ruddy complexions, or gave them whiskers and noses like cats.
"Yeah. I'm that guy," Patrick agreed calmly.
"Hey, say it. Say your line."
"Now is not the appropriate time."
"C'mon! Do it," the man urged.
"Okay, that's ENOUGH!" Patrick let go of his rolling suitcase and charged three steps toward the stranger, angry enough to hit him. It was Greg who pulled him back, suddenly aware they were holding hands.
The man shook his head and fished his keys out of his pocket. "Dick."
Patrick quickened their pace in the other direction, ushering Greg along before anyone overheard the altercation. It's not like he knew where the car was parked, but the last thing he needed was to attract a crowd. He kicked open a stairwell door and, once they were safely through, put his hands on his knees while he collected his breath.
A guy in a UConn hoodie came bounding up the steps two at a time like it was an Olympic track-and-field event. Patrick moved to the left to let him pass. He listened as the man ascended two more flights and kept his ears perked until the footsteps faded entirely.
"She, she just . . ." Greg began.
"I know." He wanted the safety of the car before they did this, but if it had to be in the stairwell, then so be it. "Mom told me."
"Three weeks ago she told me she wanted Steely Dan's 'Reelin' in the Years' played at her memorial and I told her to shut up. I couldn't believe the end was this close. But she knew."
Patrick turned slightly so Greg wouldn't see his own pain. "She knew everything." He should have come earlier. He should have been there to say goodbye. But he reasoned she was no longer his and hadn't been in years. Every moment he spent at her side stole a moment from Greg or the kids.
Greg shook his head. Patrick focused on the window in the stairwell; someone had etched their initials with their keys. Beyond, planes were taking off and coming in, lights in formation dotting the evening sky.
"The doctor said that after a-" A car screeched around the corner just outside the door. Greg looked at each raw concrete wall as if noticing this prison for the very first time. "I guess it doesn't matter what the doctor said. I was there with her, but she was gone before the kids could arrive." He retched three times before doubling over, bracing his hands on his knees. Patrick pushed his suitcase back, stepped forward, held his brother by the hood of his sweatshirt, and winced.
"Come here," he said after it was clear there was nothing in Greg's stomach to empty. He helped his brother up half a flight to the next landing, away from this scene and, maybe, hopefully, closer to the car. He dragged his suitcase behind him, disgusted by what he might be dragging it through, knowing already he would burn it and buy new luggage upon his return home.
Greg wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, grabbing the railing to steady himself. "How did you survive this? With Joe?"
Patrick stopped cold, as if caught in a horrible lie. He pinched the bridge of his nose (where he could still feel the scar from the accident that took his boyfriend) and inhaled sharply. I didn't, he thought. Survive. That was always his first response. But he was here, wasn't he? He was the one still standing in the face of loss anew. He pointed up the rest of the stairs. "Let's look for the car up there."
They walked the aisles of this new level, Patrick having relieved Greg of the key fob and clicking it every few feet to listen for a telltale honk or to spot a set of flashing taillights. They ambled up one aisle and down the next for four or five rows before either of them said another word.
"What are you doing here?" Patrick asked.
Patrick stopped to look at his brother. Why wasn't he with the kids? "Greg."
Greg stopped, turned back to face him, but didn't answer.
"I thought Dad was picking me up."
"I'm a drug addict."
The cross talk was almost comical; Patrick tried hard not to laugh. It was one thing for Greg to employ humor as a coping mechanism for grief, but it was another for Patrick to come off in any way cavalier. So instead he just said, "Is this where you meet your dealer?" He looked up at the nearest post, which said 4e. "Should we pick up some catnip before we go home?"
"It's not a joke." Greg sat himself down on the bumper of a white passenger van, gently, so as not to set off an alarm.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...