The Full Catastrophe

Charlie Minkoff, a thirteen-year-old boy born with intersex traits, would be happy to be left alone. Living with his artist mother in a derelict loft in downtown Winnipeg, perpetually wondering about the father who abandoned him, and tormented in school because of his differences, Charlie navigates the assorted catastrophes of his life. He is helped along by the love of his beloved grandfather, Oscar, and the makeshift family who surround him: his mother’s best friend; a couple of elderly shut-in neighbours; a mysterious girl in his class who has secrets of her own; and his desperately needy and perpetually hungry dog, Gellman.

When a school project leads him to discover that Oscar never had a bar mitzvah, Charlie decides to right the historical wrong and arrange a belated ceremony. But this quest will be more than he bargained for, and meanwhile everyone from his doctor to his Ancestry Studies teacher keeps insisting that Charlie needs to learn to tell his own story.

The Full Catastrophe is a story of psychological complexity, tenderness, and humour.


“A tender and thoughtful exploration of identity, meaning-making, and the stories we tell.” — Jean Meltzer, author of The Matzah Ball

“You can’t help rooting for Charlie, for his grandfather, and even for Gellman the dog in this buoyant and generous novel.”

— Cary Fagan, author of The Student

“This coming-of-age story is not only moving, engrossing, and beautifully written, it is also a deeply spiritual account of what it means to be human, searching to be seen and loved. Tell Charlie Minkoff to call me, so we can welcome him as a bar mitzvah!”

— Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

“Méira Cook’s prose resonates with compassion and childhood curiosity. She shows readers the boundaries that are systematically imposed on one’s identity by various institutions. Cook acknowledges the grueling nature of these restrictions but counteracts them by showcasing a protagonist who reflects the human experience—to be seen and loved not in spite of, but for who he is.

Queer literature often lingers in the dark blue hues of life—sadness, fear, isolation—and yet, Cook gracefully interweaves these feelings with light, reflection, wonder, and both spoken and unspoken forms of love.”

—Costa B. Pappas, BOMB magazine




Tuesday, September 5, 2006

The trouble with Charlie was he couldn’t make up his mind. But as his grandfather, Oscar Wolf Minkoff, pointed out, it wasn’t the poor kid’s fault. Indecision wasn’t necessarily a matter of choice. The fact that the doctors were struggling to assign the newborn a gender, to declare an “M” or an “F,” was just one more example of vacillation that was surely not, at this early stage, Charlie’s fault.

The way Oscar told it, Charlie Minkoff came into the world shrieking like a banshee, the proud possessor of ten fingers, ten toes, two neat ears, a comically snub nose, a well-developed sense of outrage, and a healthy pair of lungs. A tonsure of pale hair stood out around the infant’s head like dandelion fluff, and two large, slightly protuberant eyes completed the picture. “Little frog,” his grandfather exclaimed fondly, stroking the baby’s cheek.

The child was perfect, Oscar thought, sincerely puzzled by the doctors’ insistence that something was wrong, gravely wrong, with the infant’s genitals. Neither one thing nor the other, they insisted; too small for a penis, too big for a clitoris. Wincing at the unfamiliar words, Oscar remained phlegmatic.“He just needs time to make up his mind,” he said. “Give the little frog time.”

“That’s not how time works,” snapped the surgeon, a ghastly man. Distastefully, he asked if Oscar was the father, and Oscar had to explain that the father was no longer in the picture.

“He’s fallen in with a bad crowd,” he allowed, which was true insofar as Oscar had always viewed religious orthodoxy askance. But the surgeon was uninterested in Oscar’s complaints about the New York Hasidim — the Black Hats, as he called them — reiterating that the family must come to a decision about surgery, the sooner the better. The truth was, with Charlie’s father having deserted them, and Oscar’s poor daughter in a state of what he persisted in calling post-nasal depression, the decision came down to Oscar — Oscar, with a little help from Weeza, who wasn’t a blood relative but, credit due, would always have Charlie’s best interests at heart. Weeza, Charlie’s godless godmother, as she would call herself, was of one mind with Oscar. In the end, he decided he was disinclined to meddle with perfection.

He had waited too long and too anxiously for this grandchild. His daughter was a change-of-life baby, born when Oscar’s dear wife, Chaya Rifke, was in her forties. Now Jules, herself nearing forty, had given birth to this perfect child. The Minkoff women could not be hurried, Oscar thought fondly. They took their own sweet time, time becoming sweet, dripping like honey from a wooden spoon. But who holds the spoon, Wolfie? Chaya-Rifke-in-his-head prompted him. She was always reminding him that their lives were in the hands of the Almighty — a gift.

A gift! That was how Oscar had viewed his baby daughter, even when his beloved Chaya Rifke succumbed shortly after labour to a blood infection sustained during the long and complicated birth, a birth in which two children were born although only one survived. Brokenhearted though he was, Oscar had raised his little daughter as best he could given her perverse nature, her fiercely independent spirit, and her flagrant disregard for convention, all of which Oscar understood was because Jules was an artist, had been since birth. That was how it was, he reflected: you began as you meant to go on.

But when he tried to explain this point of view to Charlie’s surgeon, the man convulsed with rage, banging his fist into his palm and speaking so emphatically that he bit each word off at the root. Perhaps this was why it took Oscar a moment to realize the terrible man had called his grandchild a ticking time bomb whose controlled detonation he was willing to oversee but whose “artistic success” he could not guarantee. Sarcasm would never be enough for some folks, Oscar reflected. In addition, they had to use finger quotes to express their disgust.

In response Oscar brought up one of his favourite stories: “Cat in a Box,” as he called it. The short of it was that if a cat got stuck in a box you could never be sure what was happening in that box until you lifted the lid. Cat could be asleep, cat could be awake, cat could even be, God forbid, passed away. The trick was to let cat make its own decision, with the understanding that whatever happened, the cat could never go against its nature. It could never, for example, become a dog or — here Oscar turned the finger quotes he’d resented back upon the surgeon — “a bomb.”

Fascinated by Oscar’s highly original interpretation of Schrödinger’s thought experiment though she was, Dr. Jabbour felt obliged to intervene. A pediatric endocrinologist, she’d been called in for a consultation and, like Oscar, had taken against the surgeon’s harrowing sense of emergency. In the flurry of chromosomal testing and analysis of genital tissue that the surgeon had insisted on ordering and the ensuing brouhaha about what to do, what choices to make, hers was the voice of reason. “The decision is up to the child,” she said. “I look forward to watching him grow into an extraordinary young person.”

“Or her,” she amended hastily.

Now here was Charlie, thirteen years later, still at sixes and sevens. But despite what Jules had written on the Wonder Wall, the boy wasn’t angry at God or mad as hell. He didn’t hate his mother, he hadn’t given up on his deadbeat father, and he hardly ever wished he’d never been born. On the contrary, Charlie was hopeful, prone to hope as others are to asthma or allergies. This dogged optimism verged on foolishness, his grandfather sometimes thought. But foolishness, as Oscar knew, wasn’t the absence of light. It was the absence out of which the light could be separated from the darkness and the heavens from the earth.


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