Cheryl is a tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone, with a perpetual lump in her throat. She is haunted by a baby boy she met when she was six, who sometimes recurs as other people’s babies. Cheryl is also obsessed with Phillip, a philandering board member at the women’s self-defense nonprofit where she works. When Cheryl’s bosses ask if their twenty-one-year-old daughter, Clee, can move into her house for a little while, Cheryl’s eccentrically ordered world explodes. And yet it is Clee—the selfish, cruel blond bombshell—who bullies Cheryl into reality and, unexpectedly, provides her the love of a lifetime.
Like most really good books, The First Bad Man is summary-averse: It defies the demands of jacket copy, and the joy of reading it comes from seeing the odd, musty, intimate corners of a person's inner life treated with immense gravity and care. Few novels I can think of have such perfect descriptions of self-observation ... July is a master of the intimate weirdnesses of human thought that are both deeply specific and yet totally recognizable ... To see these everyday — yet deeply private — moments given serious artistic treatment is elating, like looking at a painting in a museum and recognizing your own toes in it. This cataloging of unglamorous inner life could be grotesque (and sometimes is) but there is something hugely generous about it. Writing about sex is a particular skill of July's — it is beautiful but real, not rapturous or misty or scene-lit. Her humor comes from a careful literalness: a dragging out of the truth, and placing it in startling juxtaposition with the surface of things. Again, she does this both with the big and the small ... Reading The First Bad Man, you are reminded that the minute and the magnificent are both real life, that the daily texture of things is as varied, intricate and fascinating as the great ruptures of human life, as tidal waves and revolutions and thwarted love.
July renders Cheryl with a combination of naïveté and wisdom. She understands little about herself or others in the world, yet she is able to float across lines of social and sexual taboos without a sense of guilt ... Since July writes Cheryl as a character who exists outside social norms, she is able to tackle social taboos in a way that’s both fresh and even a little cringe-worthy. Both Motherhood and sexuality blur. Sexual drive and the putrid stench of feet. Reincarnation and ageless love. July ventures to the edges of our comfort zone and then pushes on. Nothing about The First Bad Man holds back. This novel will be talked about for its ability to test boundaries, particularly the boundaries of sexual labels or forbidden love. But it’s worth mentioning the readability of July’s prose. Her success in carrying us through the strange world of Cheryl Glickman is a testament to her skill. This is a bizarre story, but an alluring one, and one that ends in a moment of satisfaction. July creates a character in Cheryl who elicits our empathy, but also a visceral response. Her conviction in her specific belief system makes her a character we want to understand, if not become.
July masters the art of submerging us comfortably in unfamiliar territory. Our narrator, has such a strong voice it is impossible to not be swept up in her world, full of the petty problems of everyday living and the dilemmas that come her way when a stranger comes to stay ... [July] reveals upset secrets about desire and sexuality, exposing them with the unnerving frankness of a surgeon. The strangeness of Cheryl’s thoughts are presented as simply a part of who she is, they are never excused or hidden. What should be daunting becomes instead a mundane mix of the obscene and the ordinary. There are times at which the hyperbole of certain situations does become tiresome, the constant pushing to surprise ironically tedious, but these features are redeemed through July’s execution ... Often it is at the ending of such deftly written books that the story snags ... So at first I was unsurprised when the end of this debut came up a little too short, a stop that left too many things unsaid. But July’s mastery comes in the jewel of her epilogue. It’s a finale that comes as a sweet and eagerly anticipated release, one that completes the book in unexpected and delicious euphoria.