Written from the first-person perspective, July carefully lets us see just what a lonely, oddball loser her middle-aged protagonist, Cheryl, is. She lives alone; she only uses one set of dishes and has perfected a “smoother living” system of housekeeping: “after days and days alone it gets silky to the point where I can’t even feel myself anymore”. Cheryl has a globus hystericus, a hard lump in her throat that prevents her from crying. Childless, she nonetheless sees “her” baby in the eyes of strangers’ babies – a “special connection” with a child named Kubelko Bondy, endlessly reincarnated.
Cheryl also believes that the man she is infatuated with, Phillip, is a soulmate she has been married to thousands of times down the centuries; sadly, he is more keen on a 16-year-old girl .... Then, into her life walks Clee: the busty, blonde, surly, smelly 20-year-old daughter of a colleague, who needs somewhere to stay. Clee does not aid smooth living; simmering resentment rapidly builds into physical aggression, and July’s novel too takes increasingly weird swerves and slams.
Wrestling with Clee triggers a release in Cheryl: she feels “exquisite”. Her globus disappears; she becomes lighthearted. Are these “adult games” sexual? At first it seems not, but soon – July slipping things along swiftly yet always bringing the reader, wide-eyed, with her – Cheryl is consumed by sexual desire. There are pages of feverish masturbatory fantasies. Yet Cheryl, we subtly pick up, may be missing the chance that’s really in front of her.
Convulsively readable, with a sideways wit, July’s novel is confidently out-there – and yet emotionally convincing. You yearn for a better life for Cheryl, who repulses and attracts the reader in the same way she repulses and attracts Clee. Then July swerves. Again. Clee becomes pregnant, and the birth changes things entirely. Not only does the plot blossom, but the tone does too.
Being pacily readable, The First Bad Man does not feel like a large book – but July’s writing actually covers a lot of ground. Relationships rapidly morph, and yet remain believable. The writing is tightly controlled, as it unabashedly peels back the layers of Cheryl’s oddness to serve up the beating heart within. The First Bad Man becomes a warm book – not a sentimental, tied-up-with-a-bow one, but a humane one.
July has a rare ability to pin down people’s faults, frailties, and eccentric compulsions, rather than squirm from them – and then to make us love them anyway.