spencer dew

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.

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Here Is How It Happens

how-it-happens-front-2d-web-280x458For those ensconced in the relative safety of campus life, there’s arguably nothing more daunting than the prospect of entering the so-called “real world.” Yet for the college students who populate Spencer Dew’s Here Is How It Happens, the real world rears its ugly head in ways large and small as they struggle to come to grips with the relationships in their lives and the future that lies ahead for all of them. At the heart of the novel is the (largely) unrequited love of the narrator, Martin, for his best friend, Courtney. Complicating matters is the fact that both parties are trapped in dead-end relationships that offer nothing but comfortable tedium. Meanwhile, a host of bizarre goings-on further thwart their efforts at getting together — chief among them being Martin’s efforts at delivering a drug-addled lumberjack of a classmate home to his parents’ house for safekeeping.

Set for the most part at a run-down liberal arts college in a run-down college town in Ohio, the novel is nothing if not gritty. The smell of mold, stale smoke, and cat fur clings to everything and will likely stick with readers long after they’ve put the book down. What’s more, Dew perfectly captures the desperation of his characters to stay true to their ideal selves even as they realize that they’re all doomed to become echoes of their parents. In one particularly telling passage, Courtney laments the inevitable passing of all the relationships she holds dear: “Martin, we’re sophomores in college. This is the end of philosophy. From this point on, everyone we know will get old. We’ll all take jobs involving impatient commutes and pink while-you-were-away memos. The skin under our chins will go soft and droop. Money will crush us. There will never be time or humor enough. Our hairstyles will look stupid in old photographs, and we’ll be ashamed of our spinning dances, the lyrics of punk songs, that we ever drank wine with screw tops or did homework high on diet pills or shoplifted at K-Mart.”

Uplifting? Perhaps not. But certainly true, and certainly moving. In the tradition of other coming of age novels focusing on campus life like Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like  Up To Me and James Wronoski’s Knaves In Boyland, Here Is How It Happens perfectly captures the nebulous gray zone between adolescence and adulthood that is college life.