novel

Conquistador of the Useless

Conquistador of the UselessIn many ways, Joshua Isard’s Conquistador of the Useless offers the perfect counterpoint to Spencer Dew’s Here Is How it Happens (reviewed here two weeks ago). Where Dew’s protagonists are college-aged rebels doing their best to avoid making the leap to post-college mainstream society, Isard’s novel finds a somewhat similar similar pair of lovers adjusting, at times uncomfortably, to a bourgeois suburban lifestyle about a decade after graduation.

The novel begins with narrator Nathan Wavelsky and his wife Lisa moving into a new home and learning upon meeting their new neighbors that the beloved music of their youth has been reduced to the status of a glorified tchotchke in the form of a Fender Jaguar signed by the members of Nirvana and mounted behind a thick pane of glass. That Nathan makes a good living as a corporate hatchet man only adds to his growing sense of ennui, and Lisa’s sudden desire to start a family makes matters worse.

The problem isn’t necessarily that he ever saw himself as a rebel, nor is it that he sees settling down in suburbia as a sign of giving up on his dreams. The problem, as far as he can tell, is that he never really had any big dreams to begin with — so he does what any red-blooded American would do. He goes out and gets one. Or at least he stumbles upon one when his old college buddy shows up with a scheme to climb Mount Everest. What follows is a journey of self-discovery that allows Nathan to recognize that what matters most in his life. (Hint: It has nothing to do with the mountain.)

In terms of style, Isard’s writing reminds me of Shaun Haurin and Curt Smith. Like Haurin, Isard places the musical tastes of his characters front and center through much of the narrative while, like Smith, he demonstrates a firm understanding of the compromises we all make on the long, winding path to adulthood. I’d mention that Nathan’s relative lack of direction and ambition echo the same traits in Charley Schwartz, the beleaguered narrator of my own novel, The Grievers, but that would be self-serving, so I’ll just say that on nearly every page of Conquistador of the Useless I found something that struck a chord. I’d even be willing to bet that anyone who grew up at the tail-end of Generation X will find something to love in this book — the protagonist’s angst over drifting, however late, into adulthood, his taste in music, or even his fraught-if-only-because-it’s-so-damn-pleasant relationship with his parents. All told, a fine novel about settling down without settling.

Familiar

J. Robert Lennon’s Familiar opens with an intriguing hook: A woman driving home from an annual visit to her son’s grave notices that a crack in her windshield has vanished and suddenly finds herself in an alternate reality where her son never died. Complications, however, ensue when it becomes clear that this single, albeit major, change in the protagonist’s past has had a massive ripple effect on her entire life: she now has an unfamiliar job, she’s in therapy with her husband to save their faltering marriage, and her relationship with her other son is strained almost beyond repair. Unable to explain this strange turn of events, the novel’s protagonist embarks upon a lonely, maddening quest of self-discovery that threatens to undermine everything she believes not only about herself but about the universe as well.

Intriguing though the novel’s premise is, the novel’s real strength is its attention to the inner working of the human heart and the complications inherent in all adult relationships. Most prominent among these is the protagonist’s ambivalence toward motherhood. The shock that results from the news that her son is alive is only initially due to the fact that it runs counter to everything she knows about the world she inhabits. True terror dawns when she begins to remember that the child was on his way to becoming a monster, that his earliest attitudes and actions suggested that he was well on his way to becoming a sociopath.

Along similar lines, her failing marital relationship raises many discomforting yet significant questions about the limits of love. Must a woman  always place her children above all else? Where does the husband fit in? And, more to the point, what about her own happiness and fulfillment? By raising these issues, Familiar puts pressure on many of the myths assumptions that contemporary culture places on motherhood. In this sense, the novel serves as a fictional companion to works like Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother.

As the novel careens toward its (perhaps inevitable) conclusion, it also threatens to go off the tracks in places — but this is to be expected. After all, confronting the kinds of issues that Familiar examines isn’t easy, and to wrap the emotionally fraught proceedings up in a neat, sensible package would undercut the complexity of the foregoing narrative.

All told, Familiar is an emotionally gripping and intellectually stimulating page turner, a dark meditation on relationships, motherhood, and the fragile nature of reality.

A Few Men Faithful

In A Few Men Faithful, Jim Wills introduces the Kavanagh family, the focus of a four-volume saga that spans oceans and centuries to paint a portrait of Irish culture that is as vivid as it is gritty. This volume follows the life of Danny Kavanagh and opens during Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916. Throughout the novel, the author’s research into the events he depicts bolsters a narrative that is engaging in its own right as Danny struggles to fight for his country’s independence even as he falls in love and marries. The prose throughout is clear and reminiscent of Hemingway, particularly in instances where Wills describes battle: “Stationed twenty yards apart, the brothers watched as the four men advanced toward the old, empty stone tower two hundred yards in front of their position. Cover was not good; progress slow. Lee-Enfield rounds whipped by them, kicking up clouds of rank coal dust, chipping off brick.” By way of a foreword, Wills also provides a brief but helpful primer on events leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916 for those who, like myself, are well aware of the centuries-long tension between Ireland and England but are not clear on the details.

If I have a complaint about this book, it has less to do with the author’s sense of craft than with the overall appearance of the book. The type is set in what appears to be Arial or Helvetica, the text is left-justified (as opposed to full), and the margins at the top and bottom of the page are extremely wide. Combined, these details make the experience of reading the book feel more like reading a manuscript or a Word document. Overall, however, clear writing and strong characters make this a novel (and, presumably, series) worth reading, especially for those interested in the last century of Irish diaspora history.

- Review by Marc Schuster

Fight for Your Long Day

Do we have to follow protagonist Cyrus Duffleman into a grimy restroom at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and bear witness to his efforts at relieving himself? Yes, we do, because Alex Kudera’s examination of the life of an itinerant adjunct professor in his debut novel Fight for Your Long Day is as unflinching as it is exhaustive. To put it another way, Kudera takes us into the restroom with Duffleman because that’s how the life of an adjunct works — and trying to make ends meet by rushing from a gig teaching Technical Writing at one college to a separate gig teaching Freshman Composition at a school across town lends itself to a life largely spent relieving oneself wherever one can find even a moment of privacy.

Needless to say, Kudera’s novel is about much more than unpleasantness in public restrooms. Indeed, as debates over higher education heat up across the country, the role of adjunct or part-time instructors is coming under increasing scrutiny. A June 2008 article in The Atlantic titled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” has, for example, recently metastasized into a book bearing the same name, and a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that unions are stressing the correlation between better faculty conditions — particularly for adjunct professors — and student success. What Fight for Your Long Day adds to the conversation is a play-by-play depiction of a single “long” day in the life of an adjunct, which involves working at no fewer than four institutions, witnessing a political assassination, getting roped into a poorly-thought-out sexual escapade involving a student, and arguing endlessly with himself over a slew of intellectual and cultural issues revolving around race, class, and gender.

Adjunct instructors from the Philadelphia area will find this novel particularly interesting, as much of it is set in thinly-veiled versions of Temple University, Drexel University, and University of Pennsylvania. Having worked at both Drexel and Temple myself, I’d even go so far as to call the novel haunting. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Kudera and I walked the same halls and taught concurrently in adjacent classrooms. As Fight for Your Long Day makes especially clear, the life of the adjunct can be a solitary one — and one rife with all manner of drama and intrigue.

- Review by Marc Schuster