A Good Family is Erik Fassnacht’s first novel, and like a lot of first novels, it brings to mind—my mind, anyway—Thomas Wolfe’s description in You Can’t Go Home Again of his protagonist George Webber’s own first novel: “in it he had packed everything he knew about his home town . . . and the people there.” A Good Family is packed with everything Fassnacht knows about Chicago and the people here, filtered through the perspectives of the four members of the Brunson family of Downers Grove. Fassnacht knows and loves Chicago well. This means, among other things, that, at 422 pages, the book’s bloated with so many descriptions of the city, dramatic speeches, and stray observations about human nature that it’s about 100 pages too long.

But there’s a pretty good novel lurking beneath all that bloat. Though the Brunsons start off as cliches—the traumatized war vet, the aging master of the universe, the geeky wannabe science fiction writer, and the depressed and overmedicated housewife—they gradually evolve into complex individuals. Fassnacht is particularly good at describing small moments where large alterations occur. Late in the book, for instance, Henry, the alpha-male patriarch, now in decline, ogles two young women in an elevator and rehearses pickup strategies in his mind. “He remembered then what he looked like. . . . He knew, with a sinking feeling that matched the elevator’s plummet, that he wouldn’t say anything to these nurses, that he would probably never speak that way to a woman again.”

Presumably this is something Fassnacht doesn’t know firsthand, but, rather, had to imagine. And that’s the magic that turns knowledge into novels. 

Reading Thu 8/27, Anderson’s Bookshop, 5112 Main, Downers Grove, 630-963-2665, andersonsbookshop.com, free.