Audrey Corcoran is unhappy, affected by the vague nameless malaise that creeps into those with thwarted ambitions and unrealized desires. Audrey works at Eating Out, a “shopper magazine” one usually sees in grocery stores and restaurants. In this case, the “magazine” – really a glorified press release and advertising delivery device – caters to the businesses on the Golden Mile, a strip of middlebrow chains and franchises. The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom & Party Girl chronicles Audrey’s alienation and annoyance at the petty power games and trivialities in her comfortable middle class existence.
Living with her two children, the studious Catherine and the wild Lily, she survives as a divorcee in a Philadelphia suburb. Her work life is one of false bonhomie and hollow comparisons to “a family”, made by Vic, her sleazy adulterous boss. The office environment has all the earmarks of a workplace sitcom: the sexy faded Eastern European named Svetlana, the Indian guy named Raj, and the haggard mom named Melinda. During one of these “family get togethers” at a local restaurant, Svetlana and Melinda goad Audrey into trying cocaine. Audrey refuses. This triggers an internal war inside her. She wants to have fun, but she also has to be the perfect mom for her two children.
Eventually Audrey gives in to her temptations and tries it. Her gateway is Owen Little, jazz aficionado and owner of Nick’s American Grill. The occasional thrill becomes more habitual until it becomes an all-encompassing burden, an insatiable beast that has to be fed the stuff or else it will trigger a crash.
Written in the first person, Schuster captures the comical and tragic inherent in the American middle class lifestyle. Amidst the constant justifications and rationalizations Audrey gives herself to take cocaine just one more time, he balances humor with personal failure. As a divorcee, it is easy for Audrey to feel like a failure and not the proper role model for her children. Thus she joins the local school board and then gets appointed on the anti-drug task force. She meets a comically over-the-top anti-drug motivational speaker/superhero/exercise equipment salesman. In that meeting, she buys an expensive piece of exercise equipment, recruits said superhero, and realizes she needs to sniff another line of coke along with figure out how to pay for the equipment. Thus Audrey crosses the line from drug consumer to drug distributor, aided by Melinda.
Schuster gives Audrey an uncanny degree of psychological realism. Not only is her drug consumption and paranoia handled well, but the coke paranoia exacerbates her middle class attitudes. The middle class exists less as a concrete socioeconomic cohort than an ingrained perspective akin to the French term bourgeois. (While many are economically bourgeois, they’d never deign call themselves that term, despite the bourgeois ideology being omnipresent in society.) One key facet of the middle class attitude is resentment. In the case of Audrey, it shows up in how she reacts to people outside her tax bracket. She detests her husband’s new fiancée Chloe, driving her gigantic Escalade and her wealthy parents. As a drug pusher, she threatens to call the police on a couple of “scummy looking” addicts. In a fateful encounter on the Silver Mile (a rundown, decrepit section of the suburb yet to be properly gentrified), Audrey and Melinda get some coke in a very sketchy neighborhood. Alas, poor people are frightening.
One of the beauties of Wonder Mom is Schuster’s non-judgmental attitude towards Audrey. It is too easy to turn addiction stories into cod-Temperance morality tales. Audrey is hardly “the weaker sex,” especially since she has to work as a single parent and juggle her work and school duties. Audrey doesn’t necessarily triumph, but she perseveres. Cocaine was one way she dealt with her busy life. America’s schizophrenic attitude towards pleasure and its misguided failed War on Drugs only compounded Audrey’s bad decision.
(Marlise Tkaczuk’s “Wonder Mom” cover is delightful. It shows Audrey in a makeshift costume holding a spatula, her red hair offset by the vibrant greens and yellows. A quirky comic book-style cover betrays the comical and tragic tale inside.)