Cordelia’s Strube’s 11th novel hurtles out of the gate and never lets up. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant, especially a chain, will instantly recognize the barely managed chaos of the kitchen that Strube dramatizes. Misconduct of the Heart is narrated by kitchen manager Stevie; while she tries valiantly to keep things running on the job, she’s also dealing with so many serious personal issues that her days are filled with dashing from crisis to crisis.
As is typical of a Strube novel, everyone has grim problems. Stevie’s son, Pierce, is staying with his mother. Suffering PTSD after returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, Pierce has turned to alcohol and explodes in violent outbursts. Meanwhile, Stevie’s parents, Peggy and Reggie, both have dementia, and Stevie is trying to keep them afloat in their own house as there isn’t enough money to send them to a care home. Stevie’s staff at the restaurant, mostly immigrants, are underpaid and overworked, and Stevie does her best to protect them from the insanely incompetent restaurant manager and the district manager whose sole interest is following the corporate directive to maximize profits. Everyone is trapped in a vortex of need, something that is abundantly clear by the end of the first chapter.
Stevie has her own demons apart from attempting to deal with everyone else’s. She’s never been able to get over the circumstances of Pierce’s conception; the bond between mother and son is damaged from the get-go, but that doesn’t stop Stevie from trying to help him. Her coping skills have been honed by a childhood in the care of utterly useless parents. Stevie’s own numerous mistakes (including “playing musical fuckchairs and chain-drinking to steady the turbulence in my head”) have made her sympathetic to the screw-ups of others.
All the grief in this novel would be far too much to bear except that Strube has an absolute gift for humour. Stevie is smart, funny, and sensitive. She has an innate sense of justice and understands the mess the world is in. (When Pierce decides to sign up for the war, she calls it “George Junior’s cash-grab poppy war.”) And when a five-year-old girl – who may or may not be Stevie’s granddaughter – turns up, Stevie struggles through the emotional and practical challenges with aplomb. She is a remarkably engaging character.
Strube pulls no punches in dramatizing her characters or their situations, but given Stevie’s nature, it’s clear from the beginning that she isn’t going to give up, no matter how tired she is or how sick she is of hearing about her coworkers’ sexual escapades and heartaches and the corporation’s focus on the bottom line. She does become a mouthpiece at times for vast social problems, but that doesn’t detract from her essential humanity. You can’t help but root for her.