Book Review: 'Damage Control' is candid look at family life, moral conflicts

"Damage Control," the debut novel by Michael Horner, is a hilarious, often heart-wrenching, but wholly uplifting story of realistic proportions about a hopelessly positive and determined young man named Doug Merit. Merit prides himself on his masterful flare for being a great public relations guy for the General Electric Company. His work requires a creative mind and skillful construction of reality with the news media to manage the enormous scandal that has befallen a formerly trusting and grateful community when it is discovered after GE leaves town that the pollution by PCB contamination has affected much of the land and waters of the fictional town of Pontoosuc. Merit's sunny constructions of reality are also important in his family life that poses extreme challenges in keeping it together.

The novel opens with a literally wild ride in a snowstorm as Merit desperately attempts to find his 13-year-old daughter, Jessica, who has called and said that she is in trouble and needs help now, but does not relate what's wrong or even where she is really waiting. The mission requires bundling his other little girl, Tina, who has been visiting with her friend Burty, and Burty's mother, Rachel, into the minivan and striking out in the storm to find his daughter before picking up his other child, Rudd, who has been waiting in the snow after high school hockey practice.

The opening episode is complicated by the fact that Rachel St. John, who is the very popular TV anchor for KNNK's "Lowdown at Lunch" show, is drunk and half-naked, and Merit's wife, Karen, is in Arizona on one of her frequent business trips. Rachel is drunk because she is recovering emotionally from a traumatic event in the town's Percival Lake Park where both she and Merit were conducting an interview about the scandal that GE has decided not to construct a new Frisbee golf course as promised on the newly cleaned up formerly PCB-laden soil. They are pelted by dozens of Frisbees thrown by protesters, including the town's eccentric Mayor Dugus. The whole scene is caught on camera live. In Merit's desperate attempt to locate and rescue his daughter, he is assaulted in a road rage incident, has a crash and is arrested by local police. This wild ride forms the basis of an ever-expanding network of mishaps and snafus that test the frailties and strengths of a fascinating cast of characters, both in Merit's family and professional life. Horner's smart and remarkably comic turns of phrase and his vivid characterizations, seen through Merit's wide-eyed point of view, creates an exciting and recognizable parody of hectic and fraught family and corporate life in America.

Although the episodes that emerge one after another for Merit and his family and work associates seem extreme, even entertainingly over the top at times with hyperbole, maybe they are not. It is a candid look at contemporary American family life and the moral conflicts good people must face when trying to maintain equilibrium in a topsy-turvy world of political madness amid realities of corporate indifference and scandal.