Book Review: “Less Is Lost,” by Andrew Sean Greer

Thus do the gears of the picaresque begin to turn. Less accepts an assignment to profile a best-selling sci-fi novelist (H.H.H. Mandern, a minor character in the first novel), and finds himself chauffeuring him and a pug called Dolly on a road trip through the American Southwest in an aging camper van called Rosina. Mandern is a kook and probably a hack, but inconveniences and contrivances power the plot: Less, effectively his prisoner, must both deliver him to his daughter in Arizona to make amends, and answer questions about his own troubled family history as they go. Less’s father, who abandoned his children in their youth, is now dying, and settling family scores turns out to be one of the hero’s quests Less must dispatch along the way. Of these, there are many: When a mission is completed, or the going slows, a deus ex machina, Less’s literary agent, rings up with a new job.

As Less wends from California to Arizona through Texas to Georgia and then up the Eastern Seaboard, an American odyssey to complement his previous, global jaunt, “Lost” begins to feel more like found — as in: the earlier book, turned up like an old favorite on the bookshelf of a much-visited inn. For its many admirers, that may be selling point enough. But it’s the rare sequel that outstrips its original, and it’s hard not to feel that “Less Is Lost,” like Rosina, is running on fumes. Greer leans harder into caricature this time around, more yokel than local. Some jokes, like Less’s imperfect German, are repeated wholesale. (He certainly lucks into having to use it often enough.) There are high jinks and potboiling fifth-act surprises, theater troupers and clothing-optional communards, set pieces twinkling in the Lessian light of a “beaver moon.”

And yet through it all, “Less Is Lost” is enlivened by sentence-level loveliness, en route to a warm humanism that veers toward the maudlin but mostly doesn’t off-road into it. “What do we want from the past, anyway?” Freddy wonders late in the book. “For it to trifle with us no longer? For it to cease its surprises, its stirrings, its stings, for it to be fixed forever — for it to die? But the past is like those jellyfish that, when harmed, coil into themselves and revert to immature blobs from which they begin new lives and become, in simple terms, immortal. What can we do but look away from such painful miracles?”