A gorgeous tragicomic novel of working-class New Orleans. Zib and Wilson Bailey-Jerusha's two grown kids-think the thick cloud of cigarette smoke enveloping their mother is what probably killed their father. Certainly the toxicity of Jerusha Bailey's dark and cynical attitudes has driven her children far from home. Wilson has escaped to Chicago, married, converted to Judaism, become a professor of Organic Evolution, all of which earns his mother's scorn. She doesn't think much of her daughter either: Zib, almost forty, unmarried and directionless, has made it only as far as the Florida Panhandle, where she's the assistant manager at the local Winn-Dixie and must fight off her boss's affections.So obliviously isolated is Jerusha, only one person is left in her sights: Dustin Puglia, chubby, wise, and fearless, a ten-year-old living next door with a poisonous mother of his own. The two become attached in this hilarious story of responsibility and blame. Secondhand Smoke is a deeply universal tale of blunt truth and hard-earned redemption.
With a bold beginning and a wet fizzle at the end, Friedmann's frustrating fourth (after Odds, 2000, etc.) is a tragiccomic jumble of frayed family nerves as a 70-year-old woman deals with the death of her husband and the loss of her house, while her kids try to decide how much they want to help. As the story opens, Jerusha's cancer-ridden mate is dying at home in New Orleans, and the response of their two children is classic: Wilson the professor flies down immediately from Chicago, helping out as best he can while knowing that his wife resents him for leaving her alone with the kids; Zib the Winn-Dixie assistant manager refuses to even acknowledge her father is sick until he's dead. While Wilson goes home to resume his life, Zib falls apart. Jerusha, after burying her husband at Arlington National Cemetery and being an unwilling partner to Zib's antics (she borrows Mom's car to get laid by a stranger she tails on the Beltway), returns home only to inadvertently blow it up after one of her ritual altercations with her slut of a neighbor. Having no house insurance, no money, and being too proud to call for help, she takes to the streets with her neighbor's fat but precocious ten-year-old son, Dustin. The dark comedy lacing the plot to this point leaches away as Wilson and Zib make muddled efforts to rescue her: Zib goes on a bender with Dustin's mom, her childhood friend, who winds up in a terminal hepatic coma, while Wilson, tipped off about Jerusha's whereabouts, finds her sleeping in the bushes next to the city library and brings her to Chicago, to deal with his Jewish wife and in-laws and the news that he's become a Jew himself. Fortunately, she's able to take her Chihuahua and beat it back to New Orleans. All's well that ends well, maybe, but the route this tale takes to get there has some distinctly unpleasant turns. (Kirkus Reviews)