Goodbye, Vitamin
  • March 19, 2018

    Opening Round

  • Rachel Khong

    2Goodbye, Vitamin

    Emily Ruskovich

  • Judged by

    Jeffrey Cranor


Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin and Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho both center on women dealing with men dealing with dementia. After finishing Goodbye, Vitamin, I went right into reading Idaho and was immediately struck by what I can only conceive as a deliberate matchup in this first round of the ToB.

Jeffrey Cranor created the podcast Within the Wires. He also co-writes the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, live shows, and novels. He makes theater and dance and lives in New York state. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

As I began Idaho, I thought, naively, oh yeah, I can do this. Goodbye, Vitamin, approaches its primary narrative with such focus, gentleness, and humor. Idaho does no such thing, and after about 20 pages of this epic mystery/family drama/tale of redemption, I knew my time at the bed and breakfast was done and I had to rough it in the woods.

There’s a true intellectual joy to reading these books back to back. Beyond the dementia element, both books contain strong themes of grief, love, family, and self-forgiveness. But where Goodbye, Vitamin hands those elements to you, Idaho tosses them at you and says, “Catch!”

Let’s start with Goodbye, Vitamin, which tells its story chronologically over the course of roughly one year, spoken first person from the novel’s sole protagonist: 30-year-old Ruth, who returned home after her fiancé left her for another woman.

Her father has Alzheimer’s, and Ruth has no immediate plans, so her mother asks her to stay home for a year to help out. Super depressing, no? I mean, yes, on the surface. But Goodbye, Vitamin finds the voice of an aimless, but altogether balanced, 30-year-old. There is a comical reverse-heist scene, silly conversations and tender honesty in a universe of characters who have well-defined desires, sometimes at tense odds, but often in comfortable harmony.

Ruth can’t get over the shock and sadness of her fiancé dumping her, but again, the book only takes place over a year or so. She copes with it as best she can, but at no point do you feel like she can’t overcome eventually. Ruth is wry and thoughtful. She is the ballast on a turbulent sea of grief. (Feel free to use those last five words to title your next book of poetry. I won’t sue.)

Goodbye, Vitamin establishes early on the malleability of memory. Words can change. Secrets can leave your mind, and thus all of history. And Ruth must find ways to let her dad exist in a false present, hidden in a gauzy layer of the past, or conversely help him function serviceably in his day-to-day, even if it means he’s scared or confused. Whatever he has recorded on paper is all that can save what is left.

Throughout the novel, Ruth’s father reads excerpts from a journal he kept when she was a child:

Today we went over to your mother’s friend’s house for dinner. We’d asked you to be polite, so you said, “No more, please, it’s horrible thank you.”


Today you admired a magnolia tree and I told you that it was one of the earth’s oldest plants, that the flowers are so big because beetles used to crawl into them carrying the pollen on their legs. And you asked, Why should I believe you? And that was a very good question.

Like I said before, the novel is funny (not to be confused with lighthearted), which can be risky when dealing with something as emotionally rending as Alzheimer’s, but Khong knows exactly what she is doing. Characters make good and bad choices. There are good and bad consequences. But the vessel is a short, breezy novel full of relatable people and the joy in memory, however fleeting.

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $3 and Field Notes will match your $3 and donate $6 to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

Ruth’s path to self-redemption lies in her ability to look within, to connect with someone wholly incapable of connecting. A truly introspective task. Ruth’s mother, meanwhile, has committed to a diet of whole foods with no chemical additives. She has long blamed herself for a lifetime of buying processed food, which she has read recently can cause Alzheimer’s. Her regimented commitment to unadulterated produce speaks to a more external approach. Goodbye, Vitamin is as compact and digestible (and as good for you) as its title indicates.

Idaho is the more challenging novel here, both emotionally and intellectually. (Please don’t take “more challenging” to mean “more good.” It just means more work is required.) It’s a nonlinear narrative with multiple major characters and a family mystery that is purposefully difficult to unspool.

Ann, a music teacher who moved from England to a small town in the Idaho panhandle, is married to Wade, who, like his father before him, is suffering from the early stages of dementia in only his 40s. Wade’s ex-wife Jenny is in the penitentiary for murdering their daughter May. Their other daughter, June, ran away after this and did not return. The book follows not only Ann’s life with the dwindling mental capacities of her husband, but also Jenny and her combative poet cellmate Elizabeth.

So much of Idaho’s value as a story lays in redemption, not externally, but from within, the ability to acknowledge your wrongdoings and to be OK living with them. Not be OK with them, but to know they’ll never leave you, so best not to let them eat you alive. 

While Idaho in no way implies that the trauma of losing a child can cause dementia, it is interesting to note that Wade, physically incapable of confronting his past, is the one literally dissolving internally.

A disturbing component of learning to live with pain comes early as the novel describes brutal domestic abuse by Wade against Ann, who spends her energies trying to understand Wade’s confusion—he confuses her with a dog to be trained. Ann carries on rattled, but unafraid, though I’m left wondering why there seems to be no one she can tell or get help from.

The parallel of unforgivable crimes is structurally significant here. Jenny murdered a child. Wade assaulted his wife. We know this early on about both of them, and they are hard to like. The reasons why they commit those crimes are not as important as how they forgive themselves, and how they allow others to forgive them (or not).

Idaho blindfolds your rage and your sadness and whirls them in circles and then shouts, “Now go hit that piñata!” This is quite unlike Goodbye, Vitamin, which doesn’t want you to compete for its conclusion. It holds your hand, and says, “It’s not going to be easy, but you can do it.”

Ultimately, and this is mostly to taste, but I preferred the brightness of Goodbye, Vitamin. Again, not simple, but bright. It shines its light on guilt, grief, and the existential complexities of how memories are merely cells. You can clearly see every intent, every decision, every character.

Meanwhile, I struggled to connect with Ann, ostensibly the protagonist of Idaho. I didn’t relate to why she move to that little town, why she stayed with Wade, even if the time-skipping stories of Jenny, Elizabeth, June, and May really filled my heart while my head was distracted with the chronological puzzle pieces.

So what I’m saying is I’m picking Goodbye, Vitamin, but you should read them both, in succession.

TODAY’S WINNER: Goodbye, Vitamin

The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Janet Potter & Rosecrans Baldwin

Rosecrans Baldwin: For today’s commentary, we’re joined by Janet Potter, staff writer at The Millions, contributor to many places elsewhere online and in print, and a longtime Rooster-watcher. Janet, welcome to the ToB. First off, as a reader, how would you characterize yourself?

Janet Potter is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. She is a staff writer for The Millions and has contributed to The Awl, the A.V. Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of the Hallmark Hall of Shame podcast and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull.

Janet Potter: My reading tastes are all over the place. I was a Russian Literature major and am always down for long, slow, sad books, but I like to mix it up with sci-fi, fantasy, nonfiction, and biography. The only books I refuse to read are those about twenty-somethings living in New York.

Rosecrans: I believe you’ve read both of these novels. What’s your take on today’s decision?

Janet: I greatly enjoyed both books and I agree with Judge Cranor’s characterization of both. Goodbye, Vitamin is a short, deceptively simple book, and Idaho is a multi-voice, multi-linear meditation on love that is also a mystery. The battle between the slim, brilliant novel and the ambitious, flawed novel is one that we have seen waged over and over again in Tournaments of Books for years. I always back the ambitious, flawed books, so although Judge Cranor came very close to changing my mind, I ultimately disagree with him.

Rosecrans: How so? You would’ve picked Idaho?

Janet: I would have picked Idaho. Two of my grandparents had Alzheimer’s for several years before they died, but not at the same time. We went through a years-long process with my grandfather, and my grandmother’s memory started failing soon after he died, so Alzheimer’s was a constant in our family for about 15 years. Because these books both deal with early onset dementia, their treatment of it became the main way I compared them. And through that lens, I connected much more strongly with Idaho.

Rosecrans: What did you think about the characters generally?

Janet: Goodbye, Vitamin’s narrator, Ruth, was awesome, and I wanted to be friends with her, but I did not vibe with her reaction to her father’s decline. In my experience, the early stages of dementia are often more emotionally trying than the later stages in unique ways that aren’t portrayed in the book.

Idaho, on the other hand, felt familiar to me. The way that Ann’s relationship with Wade shifted gradually from equal to caretaker was painted in a way that I recognized, and yet was also revelatory. I’m not calling Goodbye, Vitamin shallow, it’s just that if I knew someone whose relative was developing dementia, I would never give it to them and say, “This is what it will be like.” This is why it’s a good thing that I was not the judge of this round.

Rosecrans: Or you’d be a terrific judge for it.

Janet: Well, I’m comparing them based on their handling of Alzheimer’s, which is unfair to both authors. While Alzheimer’s is a factor in both books, I don’t think either of them set out to write an “Alzheimer’s book.” As Judge Cranor says, the disease is present in both books as part of an exploration of grief and memory. My personal experience is too strong and too recent to not be the primary lens through which I view them. I suspect that even if Alzheimer’s weren’t personal to me, I still would have picked Idaho, but I can’t be sure.

Rosecrans: Judge Cranor talks a lot about the impact of reading two books back to back. In your everyday reading life, do you find one book influencing how you think about the next?

Janet: I have a trick that I’m happy to share with you.

Rosecrans: Please!

Janet: When I finish a book, I read an issue of a magazine cover to cover before starting a new book. This is especially helpful when you read something that you loved, or something emotionally heavy, and you have that book hangover afterward. It cleanses your reading palette, and gives you time to figure out what you’re going to read next. I started this practice as a way to clear out all the Oxford Americans piling up on my end table, but found that it improved my overall reading life.

Rosecrans: What do you make of the judge’s distinction about books that are more challenging? When you’ve got a pile of reading to do, how do you make your pick what to read next?

Janet: I agree with his statement that “more challenging” books aren’t necessarily “more good,” but I’m personally more drawn to them. I like their capacity to get under my skin. While I was reading Idaho, I thought about it all the time. I updated my coworker on it every day, even though she hasn’t read it. Goodbye, Vitamin, as well executed as it was, occupied three hours of my time one Saturday and then I moved on. It reminds me of a few years ago when I read Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, another critical darling that was less than 200 pages. A few weeks later somebody asked me if I’d read it and I said, “No… wait, yes!” Because I’d already forgotten.

Rosecrans: Last question, any books from 2018 you’re loving?

Janet: I just started The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer and am liking it so far. I’m a little nervous, because I liked The Interestings so much and I can’t imagine another book matching it, but we’ll see! I also just got Florida by Lauren Groff. I’m a little obnoxious about the fact that I was obsessed with Arcadia and thereby Lauren Groff before Fates and Furies came out and everyone else got on board.

Rosecrans: I was watching a basketball game on TV last year and the commentators interviewed the founder of Nike, Phil Knight. They asked him, knowing he’s a big reader, what he was reading lately, and he said something like, “Are you guys familiar with Lauren Groff?” At which point I emailed Lauren and suggested that her agent set up a shoe deal immediately.

OK, we’ll wrap it up there! Big thanks to Janet Potter for joining us today. Now I’m going to turn it over to Kevin for a quick safety note about zombies.

Kevin Guilfoile: As we wrap up the opening round we also get our first peek at potential Zombie Round returnees. As regular followers of the Tournament know, we follow the usual bracket protocol until we winnow the field down to two presumptive semifinalists. At that point we look to see which books among the eliminated received the most votes in our pre-Tournament Zombie poll. Those two novels are brought back into the competition with a new chance to be ToB champion.

Like in the movies, a Rooster competitor is never really dead until you stab it in the eye with a stick. Metaphorically.

Looking at the poll as it stands right now, we have one result I think almost everyone would predict, and another that is quite surprising. If the Zombie Round were held right now, our two returning novels would be George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, and Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida.

We used to have an official statistician for the ToB who could check these things for certain, but I believe this is the first time that a novel eliminated in the play-in round has made a top-two finish in our daily Zombie accounting. Of course these results could change as more books are eliminated in matches to come.

As it is we say goodbye for good to The Animators, The Book of Joan, Lucky Boy, Manhattan Beach, Savage Theories, So Much Blue, and White Tears.

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