About 100 pages into Ben Nadler’s Harvitz, As to War, a young drifter captures the novel’s ethos almost perfectly: “A lot of kids are out there, you know, looking for something… What’s worse, some kids are out there, like animals, not looking for anything… And some kids are running from something.” Falling into each of these categories at one point or another throughout the narrative, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Sammy Harvitz, does a lot of drifting as he tries to figure out what he wants out of life and where he fits in. The problem, however, is that he doesn’t really fit in anywhere, so his drifting continues throughout the proceedings.
The events in Harvitz, As to War occur at a fast clip. Sammy drops out of Hebrew school, his mother dies, he takes up with a handful of punks, he sees some shows, he starts a band, he finds himself a girlfriend, the girlfriend gets pregnant, he joins the army. None of these details are spoilers in the technical sense since they come and go so quickly that there’s no time to really anticipate them or register shock once they’ve happened. The events, of course, are spread out over the course of many pages, and many other events intervene, but the overall feeling of the book is that of rushing through a stranger’s most personal moments.
More practically, Harvitz, As to War feels like the bible Nadler will mine as he continues to grow as a writer — returning to the events sketched out therein and fleshing them out over time and the course of several novels. I can imagine, for example, a touching, meditative novel about Sammy’s grief over the loss of his mother, or a novel that focuses entirely on Sammy’s experience in the army. For now, however, the sketch that is Harvitz serves as a starting point for a journeyman novelist on his way to doing grander things.