Tag Archives: fiction

90s Boys, Part II

17 Nov

Part One is here.

While The Topeka School aims to render contemporary America in grand moody sweeps, the book I read in conjunction with it, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations, has seemingly more modest expectations. The allegory is more subtle and less grandiose, the language more measured, more matter-of-fact, a believable rendering of characters’ thoughts. Instead, Tilney worms his way into the mind of Ben Weeks, a third-former (high school freshman to the rest of us) at St. James School, a New Hampshire boarding school not-so-loosely based on the prestigious, if sometimes embattled, St. Paul’s. Ben is a sixth-generation SJS student, the son and nephew of prominent school benefactors, younger brother to a freshly minted SJS grad who was something of a campus legend, and an emerging squash star. On paper, he’s the embodiment of the WASP elite.

It would be easy to take a snapshot of Ben as a thoroughly unlikeable character. He is caught up in an anxious, morally dubious world of high school social striving, and the closest friends he develops have few redeeming qualities. For most of the book, he at best offers compromised advice to Ahmed, his Dubaian roommate with no concept of American social norms; at worst, he enables other kids’ torment of him. The nagging voice in his head does nothing to keep him from getting drunk enough to vomit all over the room in his first month at the school or engaging in any number of other improprieties large and small. He frequently lies to get out of trouble, and he gets away with it.

And yet Ben retains a tender core. Tilney wallows deep in Ben’s adolescent brain, an achievement both relatable and exhausting: in any given moment, his actions make sense, always an effort to find his place in a harsh social world and a long family history. His bluster always tentative, and at no point do we feel his heart is in it; he remains sensitive and industriously tries to make his way through an unforgiving environment. He is overwhelmed by forces beyond him, struggling desperately to find his own self beneath the weight of generations of expectations.

Part of the problem is the world in which Ben finds himself. St. James is caught in a moral paradox best embodied by the St. James Companion, a book of expectations it gives to its incoming students, a relic of a different era that still calls students “boys” even though SJS has long been co-ed. It wants to protect its students from the forces of the world and teach them humility while preparing them to rule it. The isolation from the rest of the world it so long enjoyed is beginning to break down amid modern connectivity. Disciplinary hearings are a farce, tied more to the school’s image than any sense of justice, an attempt to keep up appearances in changing times. Ben’s family situation is not what it seems at the outset, and like any family that finds its social situation fragile, he swiftly develops an anxiety that his complex social world turns into outright paranoia.

The Expectations is an elegy of sorts for East Coast old money. That includes its most redeeming qualities: frugality and taste in the face of gauche free-spending from the likes of Ahmed, its dying moral code an effort to tame the privilege the SJS kids enjoy. The WASPs aspired to their virtues, and often those virtues aligned with the best of the American project, but as that old aristocracy collides with new money and mass democratic culture, it finds the world has left it behind. The Companion isn’t relevant for Alice, Ben’s love interest, nor for Ahmed, who irks Ben with his dismissal of SJS tradition until he suddenly does branch out in a way that could destabilize Ben’s place at the school. Ben has few qualms about breaking rules so long as they are in line with the traditions of SJS mischief, but other forms of impropriety become existential threats.

As with Adam in The Topeka Project, Ben has a smart but ultimately tragic father and a pillar-like mother, an arrangement that seems either oedipal or an indictment of a particular era in American fatherhood. Ben’s mother, a budding academic with a keen and sympathetic understanding of her son’s motives, is the novel’s grounding force; his father, meanwhile, is every bit the sorry heir at the end of the line, riding past glory and fully consumed by a need to keep up appearances. The Expectations is a more sympathetic rendering of how elite hunger for wealth and power overrides a veneer of culture than The Topeka School, and for its efforts may prove an even more searing indictment.

I knew approximately nothing about squash before reading this book—another sign of WASP decline, perhaps—but the squash portions of the book are among its most riveting. Squash is both Ben’s escape and a source of stress, especially as the stakes get higher, and anyone familiar with high-stakes high school sports (or any such activity) will relish the tale of his struggle, at once both in search of prestige and cloistered in a narrow world of little interest to anyone beyond the courts. The SJS squash coach, the aptly named Manley Price, is probably a good barometer for readers’ reactions to The Expectations. Readers who relish his efforts to push his students to the brink probably understand the desire to elegize St. James; those who find him an over-the-top manipulator will probably want to grab Ben and order him to head back to his local public school. But if a culture of excellence is to sustain itself, it needs its manly (or womanly) prices; if there is any virtue in higher moral codes, they need to have arbiters and norms to maintain those standards. That tension sits at the core of The Expectations, and the moral questions it raises are some of the most crucial ones a changing society has to ponder.

The Expectations is a debut novel, and as a result has some of the rangy weaknesses of debut novels. Its third-person limited perspective gives us an exacting portrait of Ben but comes at the expense of depth for some of the supporting characters. Its occasional tendency to wander into other brains or offer sudden insights from on high, while sometimes a welcome break from relentless Ben thoughts, usually rings false; the need to name-check every 90s brand also drained me, especially as someone who is a bit too young to find any resonance in many of them. (This may be the point, of course.) But Ben Weeks is a timeless exemplar of the status struggle of teenage boyhood, and in the final chapter, when he has nothing left to lose, he starts to find himself. ‘Let yourself bleed,’ Price tells him, and Ben pays the price to learn the true nature of the world around him.

90s Boys, Part I

16 Nov

My fiction consumption lately has featured novels with 90s high school boys at their centers, a kick driven by some of my own preferences and a product of what some good younger writers have put out in 2019. The first, Ben Lerner’s critically acclaimed The Topeka School, operates on a different level from the second, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations; the latter is content to present its characters’ thoughts as-is, but the chapters in The Topeka School often have extended allegories and drift into stream of consciousness to tie the threads together. Its style is one a New York Times review calls “autofiction”: borderline autobiographical, the fourth wall broken as the protagonist, Adam Gordon, writes in 2019 about his teenage self and includes excerpts from his parents.

At its core, The Topeka School is a meditation on the power of language and an argument for its importance in how we understand our world. Adam in his prime contends for a national high school debate championship by mastering a technique known as the spread, an incoherent, rapid-fire style designed to game the rules of the competition that Lerner none too subtly suggests has leeched into American corporate culture and politics. (The causal arrow most likely goes the other direction.) Another chapter delivers a pained portrait of the loss of those faculties in old age, as dementia removes any possibility of comprehension. Whether an intentional debate tactic or a loss of bodily control, the collapse of language upends the world.

Adam’s parents, two psychologists at an institute in Topeka called The Foundation and direct stand-ins for Lerner’s parents, take over the narration for extended stretches of the book. Jonathan, Dr. J, makes for the most lyrical of the narrators, the man himself practically a living Hermann Hesse novel. But Adam’s mother, Jane, is the book’s moral core, a celebrated feminist author who withstands the misogynistic abuse she endures with carefully refined tactics, a pillar even as some of her most vital relationships crumble. The Topeka School has garnered deserved praise for its treatment of toxic masculinity, and at its best, it shows a way out of that hell, a love letter from a son to his mother for what she taught him, even if he often failed to see it.

The Topeka School makes a concerted effort to diagnose the ills of modern America through frequent references to the nation’s imperial decline. One chapter, “The New York School,” lays bare the underbelly of a glamorous life in the diplomatic corps at the apex of American hegemony, an attempt to question the idea that those really were the glory days. The novel checks the “end of history” phrase box several times and pokes at the conceit that filters down from grandstanding politicians to self-important high school debaters. More often, though, it lingers in the mid-90s ennui of well-off white kids in Kansas, following their forays into sex and drugs and gangsta rap. Each chapter begins with an interlude in the story of Darren Eberheart, a childhood acquaintance of Adam’s and a social outcast who becomes one of Jonathan’s “lost boys,” consumed by male rage. If this is the empire, Lerner seems to say, is its demise all that sad?

While Jonathan is the narrator in “The New York School,” Jane takes command of that chapter, which makes an extended metaphor out of guiding an airplane safely to the ground. That great machine up in the sky, so far beyond the imagination of previous generations, incredible until it suddenly becomes a machine barreling along at hundreds of miles per hour, one small mistake all the only thing between its passengers and certain death. While reading this chapter my mind went to the “Flight 93 election” conservative analogy to Trump, the claim that the salvation of the republic require that people of good faith take down the hijacked plane. This, Lerner seems to say, is exactly the wrong way to react when the plane starts to smoke. Jonathan and Jane’s patients’ attempts to talk through their problems are an attempted corrective to the spread, a hope for a halting path out from the incoherence. When crisis strikes Adam, Jane is there to guide him down, and Jonathan is there as our flawed and awed witness to both the heights and recesses of the mind. Here, amid an otherwise fairly dark rendering of modern American life, Lerner finds hope.

I have two great critiques of The Topeka School. One is that, despite growing up in a comfortable Middle American community a decade later with some talent of my own in academic competitions before heading East, I could not relate to Adam at all. This isn’t to say he’s a false character; maybe the world changed drastically in a decade, and maybe there’s a a red state-blue state split or some other cultural divide between Duluth and Topeka at play. I also don’t think relatability should necessarily be the foremost concern in rating a book’s merits. But I never felt Adam come together as a character the way Ben Weeks does in The Expectations, in part because it skipped over the years between innocent ten-year-old Adam and troubled seventeen-year-old Adam that would have described how he became the way he was. Though he is the supposed protagonist, his parents came to life better than he did, more obvious products of their own briefly rendered parents than Adam is of Jonathan and Jane.

Why does Lerner not seem to care about Adam’s progression through life? I’d hazard to say it’s because he sees his world as fundamentally fallen, a product of nature and forces beyond anyone’s control. A pool cue ball, a symbol of Darren Eberheart’s violent rage, “had been there all his life;” Jonathan cannot say how his lost boys of privilege come to be, and his mentor, Klaus, offers up a contradictory claim of both eternal failings and the product of imperial decline. Some combination of male aggression is inherent, and culture (especially in late capitalist America, a land of “adolescence without end”) acts as an accelerant; the best we can hope for is to tame it. In broad terms I’d buy this hypothesis, and Lerner captures many of its contours. But I’m not sure he gives Adam (and, through Adam, his own teenage self) enough credit; while Jane tells us that teenage Adam is really a pretty decent guy, we see him only at particular flash points, and this never really comes through. The portrait just doesn’t feel complete.

My second critique, related and more serious, is of the ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that its attempt at a zeitgeisty twist fell completely flat for me. I felt some unease when I read the first chapter of the book when it was excerpted in the New Yorker this year: the subject matter drew me in immediately, but I worried it might be too clean in its vision of suburbia, too exaggerated in its effort to wash away nuance in its quest to set a brooding mood and say Important Things about contemporary American life. Beneath this desire to plunge into a full examination lay a simplistic, rather ideological lens, and in the last chapter, it all came back out again. If Jane’s plane had a gentle landing, Lerner’s skids along the runway.

Perhaps this is the price we pay for having a poet for an autobiographical novelist, a writer more drawn to rendering moods and meditative auras than crisp declarative prose. (Either that, or I wasn’t on enough drugs when I read the thing.) The Times review, trading off a point made in the Zadie Smith essay I quoted on here last month, thinks Lerner’s lack of authorial authority is just what the novel needs now, an admission that this author who is trying to say something about contemporary life (notably, a straight white guy from the Heartland) needs to acknowledge where his own perspective stops. The point, surely, is a valuable one. But the counterpoint, right there before us, is Jane Gordon, a far more interesting character than the autobiographical Adam. If only Jane could’ve had the last word; she wouldn’t have needed to append an account of her wokeness to prove she’s on the right side of history. Her life, as rendered in the book, is testament enough to everything that she and Lerner stand for.

Part Two is here.

Good Writing, 10/30/19

30 Oct

In this edition of my recurring feature, I highlight articles come to me from friends and colleagues who sent me articles thinking I’d like them. They were right, and each of them ties into some piece of my semi-recent writing. Hey, maybe this whole concept can take off.

First, we pay a visit to James Fallows at the Atlantic, who offers up one of the more impressive Karl-baiting articles I can remember: his theme is one I have played with, both subtly and not so subtly, on here before. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire, he argues, was not such a horrible thing for humanity. Instead, for most people, life went on. Many of the monasteries and breakaway provinces retained the most valuable pieces of antiquity and formed the foundations of the modern world. If our American moment is indeed analogous to the late Roman Empire, is that really such a horrid thing? Scale makes national politics nothing more than cultural signaling, and the real work of governance happens close to home. Fallows and his wife, Deborah, wrote about Duluth when they traveled the country looking for examples of how this localism could work.

In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik spends some time in my field of urban planning, and gives some nuanced revisionism of the critiques of mid-century urban renewal. Said renewal gave us a lot of ugly, bad buildings with no concept of the cities surrounding them, but it also aspired to grand solutions. Not all of them were elites glibly or malevolently displacing people of color to facilitate commerce; in fact, many had some of the noblest intentions, and at times they did a much better job of creating access for people than the contemporary ethos of preservation, which often has the effect (whether intended or unintended) of privileging people who already live in a place and making it different for others to break in. As with Pruitt-Igoe, maybe the fault is less with the planners and architects than with a political environment that never gave their ideas a chance.

Gopnik points out many of the ironies of urban political alliances–developers with housing-seeking liberals, conservatives and radical leftist preservationists–and nudges toward a conclusion that attractive architecture and design are what really matters. Our urban moment is very different from that of the past half-century, and Gopnik concludes by abolishing rent control (correctly) and urban planning departments (well, that’s awkward). This kid trained as a planner thinks he is on to something when he says that different times should make us consider rescuing the best of the past era of planning, such as its noble grand attempts to confront pressing issues, while doing away with the ugly architecture and the paternalism. Somewhere in this mess lies an answer, and we can yet find it.

Finally, since I’ve been writing some things about different generations lately, I’ll offer up a New York Times piece by Taylor Lorenz that shows how Generation Z is starting to have some snarky fun at the expense of Baby Boomers (or, at least, a subset of baby boomers that seems particularly naive to some of the challenges that now afflict young people). As noted in my June post, this broad-brush generational portrait is fairly narrow and perhaps enjoys some New York Times confirmation bias, but I am nonetheless amused.

I’ll close with two quotes about writing. The first comes from Zadie Smith, my favorite part of a sparkling, complex essay in the New York Review of Books that explains why fiction is still valuable, particularly in an era when intellectual currents challenge writers’ ability to enter into the experiences of others and accurately represent them.

[I]n our justified desire to level or even obliterate the old power structures—to reclaim our agency when it comes to the representation of selves—we can, sometimes, forget the mystery that lies at the heart of all selfhood. Of what a self may contain that is both unseen and ultimately unknowable. Of what invisible griefs we might share, over and above our many manifest and significant differences. We also forget what writers are: people with voices in our heads and a great deal of inappropriate curiosity about the lives of others.

Amen.

The second, in much the same vein, comes from Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which I reviewed earlier this year:

He knows that a lot of literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured. When someone mentioned the austerity protests that night in the Stag’s Head, Sadie threw up her hands and said: No politics, please! Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared in these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything. Still, Connell went home that night and read over some notes he had been making for a new story, and he felt that old beat of pleasure inside his body, like watching a perfect goal, like the rustling movement of light through leaves, a phrase of music from the window of a passing car. Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.

Ouch.

30 Oct

The New Yorker accurately skewers my writing life:

ouch

So excuse me while I stay true to form and go drown my sorrows in a wine bottle.

Anyway, I took the past week off from writing after finishing my marginally autobiographical plot-lite exploration of driven-yet-wandering teens who later become twenty-somethings who express their wants and needs in fits and starts. (See? I’m not totally typecast!) It was strange, and somehow resulted in me having no more free time than I normally do. I couldn’t see it when in the middle of that week, but I was directionless.

I think I can officially declare myself an addict. I write to make sense of the world, but for all of the sense-making I do, I’m not happy unless I continue to write and continue to make more sense of my world. Except in rare spurts of stream of consciousness, or when I write about topics that require less mental exertion like hockey or horse race politics, I’m an exacting writer. My process is slow, choppy, and full of long tunnels of frustration punctuated by very rare spurts of certainty and inspiration. (Somewhere in here is yet another obnoxious metaphor for life.) Rarely would I call myself happy as I write, but one of my characters did have a pretty good quote about happiness in that last installment in my story, so maybe he has some wisdom for me there.

The busier I am in my day-to-day life, the more value I place on finding time to write. I suspect this is because a hectic life gives new value to opportunities for slow thought. The instant reaction, the hot take, the sound bite or Tweet: so many demands of contemporary punditry militate against the slow, careful reasoning necessary to parse through different arguments or reflect on the past. (For a take on why this is important, revisit this Joseph Epstein quote factory on what it takes to be cultured.) Writing, which forces me to put care into thoughts, is the perfect vehicle for working toward that pursuit of understanding.

Fiction is the most satisfying writing I do because it is in many ways the slowest. There was no timeline on any of the posts in that series, and no need to come up with my own quick response in the dialogue. Not once did I slide something into one of those stories in response to some recent development in my life; many of the thoughts had been forming for years, while many dealt with things I have never experienced. It was patient, exacting, and had no need to answer to anyone or anything other than my own curiosity over how certain debates and situations could plausibly play out. Fiction is a playground to explore realities like our own without actually living through them.

None of it happens in a vacuum, of course. This latest installment had handful of guides, including books like Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Peter Matthisen’s The Snow Leopard, and William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, and films like La Grande Bellezza and Y tu mamá también and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Film weighs heavily here, I suspect, due to the episodic nature of the story; curiously, I can’t name a single novel that directly influenced my efforts, though I suppose there are hints of Gatsby and Wallace Stegner lurking in there.) Deep in my memory, I can probably recollect some stray conversation about Havasu Falls and the tale of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, and while only one of the eleven installments had any direct autobiographical undercurrents, my own life certainly courses through much of it in subtle ways.  Fiction can come to seem like an incoherent hodgepodge of influences, or an author’s attempt to show off a vast knowledge. My previous efforts often came across that way, so this story collection tried to rectify that.

Beginning with that first story about Evan on his surfboard, which still might be my favorite of the bunch, there was a deliberate attempt to strip away all artifice and focus only on the world inhabited by the two characters. “Less is more,” I told myself time and again, purging away useless details and chopping out aimless dialogue. I intentionally avoid most all markers of time; other than establishing their use of cell phones and perhaps some of their slang, there’s very little in the stories that can pin the characters at any point over the past fifty years. I used some descriptive language to set scenes and interrupt long runs of dialogue, but I tried to live in the characters’ minds and in the tasks immediately before them that consume their thoughts. If I haven’t put readers directly into their minds instead of some obvious extension of my own, I haven’t succeeded.

When I was fully invested and writing well, my fiction almost becomes an out of body experience. Mark and Evan have existed in some form since my undergraduate days, but they took on new life over the past year and a half, when they became two influential and sometimes warring factions in my head. As a writer of fiction, I sometimes feel like I’m living four or five parallel lives, and if I ever seem lost in some other world, it may be because I’ve wandered down one of those other paths that I’ve invented, at least for a little while. I tend to reject strict methods of categorizing people or a sense of a “true self” because I can inhabit several different, sometimes conflicting selves, and I don’t see this inherent tension as necessarily problematic. If anything, it expands horizons, and makes the rich variety of the world and human experience possible, if only in a fleeting way, to someone who otherwise can get bogged down in the lurches of emotion of day-to-day life. Fiction, in its ability to transport readers, makes us free.

So, perhaps in that spirit, this blog will now move on to some very different ways of being. I have to offer up some bread and circuses to go along with the invented worlds, so we’ll gear up for elections in my next post, and hockey season is just around the corner, too. Thanks, as always, for bearing with all of this eclectic slow thought.

Amor Mundi

21 Oct

This is the eleventh, and (probably?) final, piece in a fictional series that began here.

Evan always dreads the end of his travels with Mark. It’s not because he’ll miss the places he’s visited, or even the increasingly rare time spent with a friend whose infectious charisma still entrances him after all these years. He’s lived to the fullest, and these brief windows can’t go on. That would defeat the point. Instead, Evan fears his inevitable lapse when he’s back to his humdrum routine. His mind will be elsewhere this week, part the product of exhaustion, part the wistful wonder over other lives that could have been or could yet be. His mind opens to different possibilities, and he will dwell longer than he should.

This time, however, Evan suspects his own comedown has nothing on his friend’s. Mark jabbered most of the way down to Havasu Falls about his ongoing exploits in New York, and they’d bonded with their fellow travelers and Havasupai guides on their night beneath the falls before the two of them escaped for their customary bout of moonlit, bourbon-fueled philosophy. He’d seemed as self-satisfied as ever. But this morning, Mark is a different creature entirely. His moodiness is not in itself a strange development, but Evan’s usual tools to coax him out prove useless.

Frustrated, Evan hangs back with the chatty Mormon couple they’d dined with the day before. He needs human companionship, and stray stories of hiking adventures are ample fodder for fellowship in these circles. He rhapsodizes over their night in a tent deep in Zion eight years earlier, and his fellow hikers nod in delight at this story of friendship sustained over time and distance. But his words belie the growing gap between them as they plod up out of the canyon. When he sees Mark accelerating, he knows he too has to turn on his jets and keep up, and the Mormons know to let him go. Mark may not want to talk, but he clearly wants Evan’s presence, and Evan answers the silent call.

Evan trudges along at Mark’s side in the baking heat, but Mark remains intent upon his feet. Even in a state of melancholy, Mark still pulses with power. He’s barely even perspiring. Despite his lighter complexion he somehow manages to bronze instead of burn, while Evan already knows he has a date with a bottle of aloe upon his return to civilization. If this were a week-long trek, Evan could likely outpace Mark, but on a long weekend with just two ten-mile bursts into and out of a canyon, Mark is in a class of his own. Evan feels strangely inadequate, as if he must bring Mark to heel.

“Quit thinking about Indira,” he says. “It’s done.”

“I’m not on Indira at all. I’m actually thinking back to Jackie.”

“Woah. Back to the start?”

“Sure. Just…let me process for a bit, okay?”

“Of course. Here for you, bro.”

Mark’s nods to show his appreciation of Evan, but his mind is already back in high school. It’s the summer after his junior year, and his erstwhile girlfriend, Jackie, hosts a few friends in her back yard on the day before she heads off to college in Chicago. They’d long since given up any pretension of romance—though they weren’t above servicing one another from time to time—but while their friends bubble over with heartfelt high school farewell clichés, Jackie keeps casting significant glances his way. Finally, Mark retreats to the kitchen and Jackie steals away for one last moment with him. Mark grumbles about another year in Duluth without his graduating friends, but Jackie reminds him it’s worth playing the game, keeping up the illusion. He is the best there is at playing that game, and it would be a shame to waste his skills.

Somewhere along the line, Mark thinks, the illusion became reality. He really is something resembling the boy he’d pretended to be: poised, powerful, an old money heir who’s nonetheless built his own formidable reputation. He’s achieved his dreams as well as anyone he knows. He’s made his world his own, collected its wealth and eaten its best food and gone to some of its most beautiful places with the best friend he has. And yet where has it left him? Still searching, still restless, still unsure what the final destination may be.

In his more brash moments, Mark tells himself this is exactly the point. The pursuit itself is the goal, the wisdom to know he’ll never get there yet continue to push with all he has toward that destiny he’s always known is his. That drive is the secret behind all his success, and he must love it for what it is. Camus had it right. Or did he?

The moments when that mindset takes hold are all too rare, and the sheer effort he needs to sustain it wears down even his nonstop motor. Half the time Mark fails to notice his lapses, and even when he does, no number of canned lines can always break him out again. He’s not sure if he’s bipolar, or if he’s settled on a philosophy of life that is too demanding for any human to reasonably attain; one that will leave him rich, attractive, and utterly broken by the time he turns thirty. He’s in too deep to quit now.

Evan is relieved to see Mark perk back to life when they reach the parking area. Mark volunteers to drive, and throws on a series of underground rap albums as they rocket back to Vegas, educating Evan on the nuances of the New York scene that he samples on his free weekends. They make good time, and still have a few hours before they diverge on separate flights. Evan expects Mark to suggest a detour down the Strip, but Mark assures him he has no interest in crass postmodern pastiche, and heads straight for the rental car return. Evan doubts he would have been so dismissive of the Vegas party with his friends out east, but appreciates the gesture nonetheless.

“Let’s find ourselves an airport bar and get some class into this cesspool,” says Mark. “They gotta have some top shelf shit for all the rich fucks trying to live it up on their way out of town.”

“Eh, I’ve gone through so much money on this trip already.”

“It’s on me.”

“But you pay for too much—”

“Forget about it, Evs.”

Evan follows along in tow as they return the car, shuttle to the airport, and work their way through the security lines. Mark researches their beverage options during the wait and leads the way down the slot-filled concourses without a sideward glance at any distractions. Once they arrive, he pulls himself up into a barstool and reaches down to massage his aching knees, battered from his hike on top of a lifetime of goaltending and trail runs. It’s a price worth paying for what he does, his more vivacious self says as it takes back the helm. He has no choice but to push through the pain.

“What’s the best thing you’ve got?” he asks the bartender.

She laughs at him. “Got a twenty-seven year old bottle of—”

“Younger than me? Sad. We’ll take two anyway.”

The bartender looks Mark over as if to ask if this still boyish-looking kid, scruffy after a few days without a shower, won’t drink and run. Mark levels a stare so scathing that she swiftly delivers the drinks as promised. Evan shakes his head.

“What?” Mark demands.

“I’m just thinking back to that wide-eyed goalie we pulled in from Silver Bay who showed up and needed a home. He’s come a long way.”

“Whatever you say.” For once, Mark resists the urge to disagree, as he knows disagreement won’t paint him in the most flattering light. He’s not sure he’s aged a day since that chat with Jackie in high school. He still operates in the same exact way.

“Wow, this is good.”

“Drink it up, Evs. We’ve earned it. After all these years, we still know how to live.”

“Remember that first time we drank Scotch, when you snuck that bottle into the Boundary Waters for us?”

“How could I not? I’ve still got some mosquito bites on my legs from that trip.”

“Damn, Marky. You did more to get me out of my shell than anyone ever did. Even after all we’ve been through, I’m not sure you know how much I owe you.”

“Eh. I’ve always felt like I’m the one in debt here. You’re my rock, man, and you know it.”

Evan sets down his glass and turns away. He is unworthy of Mark’s praise. Bridget wasn’t thrilled that he’d planned this vacation, and Mark has chastised him repeatedly over the course of the hike for his frequent check-ins with his wife and one-year-old son. This trip has prompted alarm on several fronts: his body aches more than it used to, his upper-body strength isn’t what it was, and when he looked in a mirror in the airport bathroom for the first time in days, he realized he can’t pretend otherwise: his hair is thinning. He’s the one who supposedly lives the more stress-free, slower-paced life, but he’s not sure anything Mark has ever done can possibly approximate the life-and-death immediacy and nonstop demands of parenthood.

It has tested Evan more than he can ever tell anyone. His life over the past year has been a blur of his son’s incessant demands and Bridget’s fraying nerves. The two of them fell into spells of silent brooding, unable to say much beyond the necessary acknowledgment of their son’s needs. He can’t quite remember what inspired him to start swiping, or to propose a date to that girl with a summer job leading canoe trips up north. He hadn’t been drinking, nor was his day particularly bad. Baby Brendan was out cold, Bridget was curled up in front of the TV, and life had come to lack that imperative to treat every second as borrowed time.

He didn’t show up to the date, and erased any trace of his sins. Revolted, Evan declared war on anything in his life that might let him lapse again. First and foremost, his own father’s abandonment loomed over him: he’d strapped his son to his back and gone for a long hike along the shore, complete with long time at prayer. (He didn’t tell Mark that he’d gone up the driveway to cast a skeptical glance at the new owners’ renovations of the Brennans’ old home, and whispered Brendan some tales of Uncle Marky.) He’d started a book club with a smattering of other closet intellectuals he’d found around town. He got a key to one of the local rinks from an old friend who now manages it, and skates at odd hours of the night. And he and Bridget have purposefully started scheduling date nights in stray sections of woods to make sure they can always bring back the fire.

One other event had compelled Evan into action: Indira and Mark, after two years together, had broken up on the steps of St. John the Divine some three weeks prior. Evan had provided immediate therapy while Mark rode the subway home that night, but only on this hike did he get the full story. They’d gone to the opera together and then set out for a late-night drink with some friends at Columbia, but they’d never made it that far, and devolved into a vicious war of words beneath the old church. To hear Mark tell it, the split was mutual, the only sane outcome after repeated collisions of two high-strung egos. But Evan suspects Indira was the one to cut and run, and Mark has spent the past three weeks justifying it to himself. Mark, for all his wanderings, is unflinchingly loyal when he does choose to commit.

“I should do something for Duluth,” Mark muses. “What do you think about me buying a stake in the paper? It’d be small. But I’d be hands-on, at least.”

“Newspapers are dying.”

“Sort of. But we can keep em alive if we work at it. You control the story, you control the world.”

Evan finds himself deep in an unexpected well of derision. “That really true? How much did we put into telling this story about progress for everyone, this dream of a better world we were building? And what’s come of it? People don’t trust anyone anymore. No one controls the story, unless you can buy it with enough money, I guess.”

“Well shit. All the more reason for me to buy it, then.”

Evan rolls his eyes, and Mark sighs and tries a different tack.

“I guess it does kinda feel like the barbarians are at the gates every day these days.”

“At the gates? They’ve been living right next to us for a while now. We’ve sealed our own doom. Didn’t need any help from barbarians to get there.” Evan’s eyes bore into Mark, but Mark gazes back with firm resolve.

“Sure, we may have fucked up. But look what we built before that, though.”

“It was incredible, yeah. But we lost something along the way. I’m scared of the world I’m raising my son in, Marks. That cabin in the woods that Bridget wants is sounding better and better every day.”

“Eh, you’d never be happy there.”

“No, you’re right. I’ve got a job to do. I wish I had more to work with.”

“Well, pretty soon you’ll have an in at the paper, I can tell you that much.”

“I wish you’d just come home. You could be the best weapon in our arsenal.”

“You think Duluth would take back an elitist asshole like me?”

“You’re an asshole, but you’re our asshole. And the two of us together, we could figure out how to play the game.”

“You know how to work my ego, that’s for sure.”

“Marky Mark, I know how to work your soul.”

Mark and Evan stare at one another in mutual fear of the other’s reaction. They both avert their eyes. Evan has penetrated Mark to his core: as he always does, he has found a way to twist in beneath his myriad defenses, perhaps never deeper than this.

“Sorry,” he says.

“Don’t be. It’s true.”

“I mean it, though.”

“I know you do. But I’ve got a good life for myself, girl thing aside, and I’m gonna work that out eventually.”

“Are you sure you’re not…you know…digging your own grave?” Evan chances.

“By being so cynical about love?”

“Not quite. By…sleeping around as much as you do.” Evan gulps. He’s wanted to level this critique for ten years now, so many times has come so close to sharing his fears over his best friend’s excesses. Some combination of envy and a rooting interest has kept him from ever saying a word. He looks up carefully, worried Mark will lash back at him. But Mark is cool and collected, and speaks with icy precision.

“Look at it this way, Evs. Remember Landon? That roommate I had before Indira moved in? Dude’s in tech, loaded family, getting his Columbia MBA so he can keep climbing that ladder. He works full time, he’s in school, he’s got no time to date. Know what he did to put himself to sleep every night? Jerked off. Same old porn every night. You’ve been with the same girl since high school. Not sure you realize how fucked up our generation is, drowning itself in alternate reality. Hour after hour, day after day. Dudes don’t know the first thing about intimacy. I wasn’t gonna let that happen to me.

“So I’m not sorry if I’m a fuck-up in your eyes. I’m damn proud of myself for having the guts to go out and do this, get the real thing again and again. It takes actual skill, gives ya real pleasure. I might not be the easiest to handle all the time, I’ll admit that. But I always ask what they want, I never cheat, and I always make sure we’re on the same page. I’ll never apologize for that.”

“Oh, it’s all noble, I see,” Evan laughs. “Is that really what it’s come to, you twisting yourself like that? Nah, Mark. I’m not saying you’re wrong to be cynical. I’m saying the way you live’s made you a cynic. You don’t need to keep doing things this way. This isn’t healthy.”

“That’s the world I live in now.”

“Come home, man. Just come home.”

“To what? All due respect, Evs, there ain’t much for me there. My dad’s dead, my mom’s running around with her redneck boyfriend and we’re not close. My dad was a dick, but at least he was on my level. She can’t get me at all. You’ve got your mom, your in-laws…don’t get me wrong, Minnesota made me who I am, but there’s nothing left there now. It was always more yours than mine.”

“You’ve got me, dammit. And what’s yours instead now? Chasing the finance life? Really? Thought you didn’t want to turn into your dad.”

“Fuck it. I’ve got friends there, and there are actual marriageable girls…”

“I remember a kid from high school who plotted for half a year to lure in Jackie Donovan. Went after that cute, real smart girl a grade ahead of him. Worked her carefully, got her to let go of her old ex, made her believe love could be real again after she’d been burned. Lived a dream for a few months. Where’d that kid go?”

“Jackie left him for her ex, that’s what.”

“Aw, you still crying over the one that got away junior year? Come on. That wasn’t the point. The point was that I know you know how to make that effort.”

“That was a long time ago. I’ve seen a lot more of the world now. Buried some people, seen those couple happy years we had in high school fade. It’s just a memory now. I can’t be sixteen again, and I never will. I’m not going to try to bring that back. You call my methods spin, okay, it’s all spin. But I’ve gotta find something here.”

“I thought you had something going there with Indira.”

“I did, more than I ever have. But, what’s the best way to put it? I had a sense of loss that she just didn’t. Our lives were motivated by different things.”

Evan’s brown eyes pierce through him, and Mark has the uncanny feeling that his thoughts are no secret.

“More than you ever have? Even with Jackie?”

Mark nods. He’s never told Evan the story, but he knows Evan has pieced enough of it together.

“She was the only girl I ever loved for who she was. The rest? It’s always been chasing something or other.”

“Like what?”

“Status, beauty, some idea of a life I wanted for myself. I’ve never found that.”

“You just sound so…defeated.”

“Me? Defeated? C’mon, man, do you know anyone who’s done more to get what he wants than me?”

“Because it’s all you know how to do!”

“Bullshit.”

“Seriously, where’s the belief in something better?”

“Look at this world, bro. How are you optimistic? You, of all people, should know the darkness around us. You’ve seen it in your own life, you’ve seen it in your travels, you see it in the news every day…”

“And that’s all true! But Marky, I know what I can control. I’ve decided I can settle down with the girl I love in a place I love and we can do it all right out there.”

“Evs, I love you, I get it. But someone like you, who’s taken me places I never would’ve gone otherwise…I think that’s you at your best. You can change this world, Evs. You sure you’re not running from it when you head to the woods like that?”

“I don’t really know where I’m going, Marks, but I do know that this place I’m going is a hell of a lot healthier than the one you’re running toward.”

Mark calls for a second round from the bartender, who has edged her way to the far end of her fiefdom to avoid the bickering men. Evan glowers, unsure if the intended audience for his anguished cries is Mark or himself. He needs to believe it. He searches their fellow travelers in the airport for some humorous hint of Vegas excess to distract him from all this self-important blather. Down the bar, an Irish tourist has made friends with two young women with Southern drawls. Behind them, two parents with five children in varying states of obesity struggle to find an acceptable meal option for their charges. There is nothing particularly Vegas about this scene; just the typical placelessness of a place designed strictly to move people to other places. He’s ready to go home.

“What kills me about you, Evs, is that you could’ve had power, but you don’t. You work a decent job, live a decent life, cool. I just think you were cut out for so much more than handing out a few scholarships here and there. And I know you’ve got that drive somewhere in you to want it.”

“I do! Look at the life I’m living. Everything thought out, lined up in this great big idea of how to live that we’ve been arguing about for a decade.”

Mark closes his eyes and nods slowly. “See, that’s it. I’m the same way, man. I know you think I’m some shitty corporate raider, but I’ve got power and I’ve used it.” He stops, looks around, and lowers his voice. “I sabotaged a merger that would’ve killed a few hundred jobs in Detroit. I spent that summer there—those are my people. I put my job on the line and won. You wanna make this world a better place for your kid, you need some people on the inside. Not even your cabin in the woods is safe these days.”

Evan’s eyes bulge. He takes a drink and taps the counter as if sounding out some answer in Morse code. “I’m impressed. I really am. But can you honestly say that everything you’ve done is right and good?”

Mark stews and Evan nods, knowing the answer.

“This isn’t easy,” says Mark. “I have to make hard choices sometimes. But it comes with the territory. Gotta take the fight to the arena. Do what you can to change that narrative.”

“It’s rotten. Rotten to the core.” Mark has no answer, and Evan is again afraid he’s gone a step too far. Is he losing his filter as he ages? No, not really; they have both become hardened as they go their separate paths, and have always been stubborn in their own ways. Gone are the shared stages of school and growth, and now they are on their own, their freedom to travel their own roads a threat to undermine everything that has gone into their bond. Evan hates his era, and the only way to gain the power to fix it comes through complicity and corruption.

More and more, Evan sounds to Mark like some of the people caught up in the evangelical church he’d attended before his parents’ divorce killed whatever belief he had. Those committed believers had been so earnest, so convinced of the world’s perfidy and their own righteous ability to resist it. Mark wonders if he could find a Biblical way to justify his life to Evan, tap into that last relic of a fading faith to speak a language that makes sense to a believer. He has little memory left of it, not that it wouldn’t come all back to him if he put in a little effort. There are always answers in the wilderness.

“Honest question,” he asks. “Are you really as happy as you sound?”

“Happy, not always. But I’ve always thought happiness is a byproduct of a well-lived life.”

“Are you living your life as well as you want to, then?”

“Yes and no. I love my wife, I love my kid, I love my city, I do good work and like the people…but yet.”

“But yet what?”

“Sometimes I just feel…”

“Shit, this is like pulling teeth.”

“It’s hard to describe.”

“Is it work-related?”

“Yeah. Though it’s more than that. It’s vocational, you might say.”

“Existential Evvy at his finest yet again.”

“What I’m here for.”

Mark stirs his drink with a finger and fixes his lips together to force Evan to go on.

“It’s hard to stay motivated,” Evan chances. “And when I am, too often it’s because of fear, or anger at other things around me. If you’re looking for panache amid the ruins, I’m looking for panache through gratitude.”

“What the hell does that even mean?”

Evan takes a moment to collect his words. “All of the love of life with none of the angst.”

“Even after all this, all your listening to me, all the doom and gloom…you still manage to stay so…pure.”

“Having a kid helps.”

“Sure, but you were like this before that.”

Evan again takes his time to answer. “I waver a lot. I think you know that. But I also remember what it was like to be pure, once. And now I can see that in Brendan, every time I look at him.”

“A faith, sort of?”

“I know you won’t like that, but sure, yeah. That gets there.”

Mark shrugs. “It is what it is.”

“Do you feel it too, then?” Evan asks.

“Not really.”

“Think back to the early days before we were aware of everything. When the whole world and everything in it was sacred, in a way.”

“I’m not sure I ever had that.”

“You did, at least for a moment, somewhere, sometime. Just think.”

Mark opens his mouth, but Evan silences him with a flick of a finger. Mark reaches back into him memory and tries to find some hint of childhood delight that he can’t filter through a lens clouded by everything that has happened since. He fixes on a wedding for one of his father’s associates in his elementary school years, a glamorous affair on a sprawling Westchester estate, lush gardens and terraces galore. But for young Mark, none of those trappings matter: he just runs out and tears up the dance floor with the flower girl, and smile on his mother’s face as she bounces over to join him is forever seared in his mind. Delighted, Mark dares cast a glance at his father, who stands watch from a terrace balcony above. Preston Brennan musters up a thin smile, one of those three or four moments in his life when Mark felt his father’s love. It was possible, if only for a moment, a rare star that Mark can name.

For his part, Evan is back in San Onofre, fresh off his first surfing lesson, drenched but proud that he’s managed to stay upright for a few seconds. He and his parents settle in at a beachside diner for a seafood feast, and Evan boasts of his ride and regurgitates facts from the book on marine life he’s been reading the whole trip. His dad, a few beers deep, pokes fun at Evan’s nerdiness, while his mom grumbles about how she married a philistine. In retrospect Evan will notice how his dad tensed up when his mom tried to make those jokes, and how she would swiftly backpedal as if she’d never meant them. But at that time he’d just laughed along, and soon he has them all laughing along, back in the thralls of happily ever after. He wants nothing more than for Brendan to believe in that possibility.

“What are you thinking of?” Evan asks.

“Hockey,” Mark lies. But it isn’t a falsehood, not really: there he’d been allowed to pour unbridled passion into everything he did. It all feels like child’s play to Mark now, while Evan has the task of convincing his wife that a childhood of checks and tournament road trips is a good pursuit for their one-year-old boy. Evan wants Brendan to have that passion, even if he has to find ways to ease him into the knowledge that it cannot last. Mark simply wishes he could have it back.

“Can you believe what we had there?” Evan asks.

“That’s all over now,” says Mark. “What are we left with, once we can see the world for what it is? Everything that comes after…it’s in the shadow of what we’ve lost.”

“To lose it, someone had to build it in the first place. And me and you, we’ve been part of some great things that we built together.”

“That we have.” Mark drains his glass. “When we were sober enough to remember them.”

Evan laughs. “Left our own legend, in our own little way.”

“Evs, my man, we’ve lived well.”

“And we’ve got a full life of good living ahead of us, if we know where to look for it.”

Mark’s thoughts range far and wide, from Emma to Jackie to Indira to fifteen others in between, from backyard rinks to New Haven to Rome to a gorge high in the Himalayas, from his dying father’s words to Brendan’s fumbling first steps. He smiles up at Evan. “Since the day I met you, I’ve had some idea where. And I know you’ve got it, too. There’s your gratitude.”

Evan and Mark go quiet. Their argument has exhausted itself.

“Well, I’ve got a flight to catch,” says Evan. “Thanks for the drinks. And for everything. Seriously. And think about what I said…just remember if you ever want to come home, you know I’ll move heaven on earth to make it work for you.”

Mark closes his eyes and smiles. “Love ya, Evs. Keep bein you.”

Evan and Mark embrace in silence. Evan hoists up his backpack and makes his way down the concourse without a backward glance. He’s given it his all, and finally said was he’s meant to say to Mark for years. He is at peace with his efforts, at peace with his wanderings, and now he’s headed home to see the loves of his life. He is blessed, here amid strangers in this no-place of a concourse, and while he’ll no doubt lapse again, he has more than enough to carry himself through. He is happy.

Mark watches Evan go until he’s out of sight. “I’ll take one more,” he tells the bartender, and tosses his card on the counter. He takes a sip from the drink, swirls his glass, and raises his eyes to the bottles along the top shelf of the bar. A smile starts to play along the corners of his mouth.

He knows what he must do now, and the rest will follow. He is only beginning.

A Celebration of Literature

20 Sep

PBS is currently running a series that seeks to identify Americans’ most beloved novels. I haven’t watched it, but as the son of a Duluth librarian who is coordinating several panels on the series with local literature professors, I’ve been lured into attending a couple of events. This is the sort of thing I would probably attend anyway: by my count I’ve read 35 of the 100 short-listed novels, and have also seen film or TV adaptations of another 13, and read other works by nine authors who make the list (each could make the list only once). These events, which feature good discussion with (disappointingly) small groups, pose the vital questions that surround any such effort: what does it mean to develop a literary canon, what and who gets left out of a canon, and whether these things should be popularity contests or if some cadre experts can decree what constitutes good fiction and what does not. (While there were some limitations, the PBS series is largely a popularity contest, with works like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight making the short list alongside War and Peace and Great Expectations.) Whatever the masses end up choosing, it’s a good launching point for discussion, and a chance to spill my own thoughts.

I have little trouble naming favorite works or authors of non-fiction, but find it a much greater struggle to do so with fiction. Still, the PBS series compels me to offer up a few. One Hundred Years of Solitude sits near the top of my list for its layers of allegorical power, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World still wows for its ability to recreate a world and the full range of people within it. I reread The Great Gatsby in the past two years, and it resonated far more than I remember it doing in high school, perhaps in part because I’ve lived a slight flavor of the Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby journey, drifting from Minnesota to East Coast money and trying to find my way between those two worlds. As a literary work, though, it is near-perfect: so tightly wound, so well-constructed, and yet still so easy to access eighty years later. If anything can claim the ‘Great American Novel’ title, Gatsby is probably it. If forced to choose one book, though, I still might lurch back to the novel that began all novels, Don Quixote. It does help when one takes an entire class on a book in one’s undergraduate days from an awesome professor to get the full historical context behind a book of brilliant social commentary.

There are other works I would not put on the same pedestal as those few, but have changed how I live my life in one way or another. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a marvelous blend of people in places I have lived, all trying to make some statement on contemporary American life, and inspired my own fictional attempts. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country came to me as I contemplated a life of foreign service of some sort, while the dry iconoclasm of Graham Greene fit the mood of a more jaded, older kid. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse gave me a metaphor that still informs many of my pursuits, and at a later stage, the criminally undervalued Wallace Stegner came along with Crossing to Safety to shower some wisdom on someone wrestling with both career ambitions and a love of place. I read them all at the right time.

Before we go any further, I’ll confirm my credentials as a literary snob: my list of great novels will all fall somewhere within the realm of realism, or at least magical realism. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed both as a kid, I have some reservations at the appearance of things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings alongside Dostoevsky and Adichie. My literary tastes have progressed since then. I’ve done little dabbling in science fiction or fantasy as an adult, perhaps because I’m the sort of person who, upon discovering the burdens and frustrations of life, goes running for the most depressing and heavy stuff to try to find out how other insightful people have wrestled with such questions instead of looking for escapes. Some books in those genres do go in this direction: for example, Frank Herbert’s Dune downplays the tech side of science fiction and offers a rich commentary on society (and may yet inspire me to launch a Butlerian jihad), and the study of mythology and imagination behind Tolkien’s world-building has had an overwhelming influence on literature. They build complex plots, and it’s easy to fall into their worlds.

As someone who writes, however, I often find that my fondness for good writing overpowers my identification with the story. While I want to read novels that are both good stories and well-written (duh), if forced to choose, I’ll take good writing about topics that don’t fascinate me over an entertaining story. I’m not a lover of Hemingway, but he has glimmers of some of the most pristine prose I’ve ever read when he takes readers along on a fishing expedition in the Spanish countryside in The Sun Also Rises. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a fun book, but John Irving is capable of making paint drying sound amusing, and that turns a good story into a great novel. The prose of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead perfectly pairs with the heartland Protestant austerity of Reverend John Ames as he writes his letters to his son, and other writers, from Wendell Berry to Flannery O’Connor to William Faulkner, blur language with a sense of place in our minds. Perhaps this love of well-wrought prose is at the root of my dismissal of science fiction and fantasy as great literature: so often, even when they do manage to be insightful about human nature, those novels fixate on plot over structure and artistry, or devolve into sequels and expanded universes instead of standing on their own very real power. Their worlds fall in on themselves, instead of cycling back out to the one we live in.

I enjoy fiction that inhabits worlds similar to my own, and my world is a very large, rich place. While my defense of a concept of good writing makes me broad-brush defender of some sort of literary canon, I certainly believe in an expansive version of said canon that captures the written tradition of any number of societies. The Great American Read list is fairly thin on books translated from other languages; it is confined to a couple of Russian and French giants, Don Quixote, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is a mild source of frustration for someone whose literature consumption, especially in his college days, was driven by Latin American Boom authors, and expanded from there. It started with García Márquez in high school but soon wandered over toward the delightful absurdity of Julio Cortázar, the stunning range of Vargas Llosa, the posthumously beloved Roberto Bolaño, and a number of other lesser-known masters of Spanish prose. I didn’t confine my voracious reading to writers in one language, either: my reading list has often been populated by the likes of Arundhati Roy, Orhan Pamuk, Hiroki Murakami, and Edwidge Danticat. In an era of vogue scorn for the dead white men who traditionally dominated many lists of great literature, my reaction has often just been a shrug: I’ve never had any trouble incorporating a lot of people who are not like me at all into my own expansive idea of a canon. I can learn from all of them.

Despite all of this love for different worlds, the novels that affect me most tend to be coming-of-age stories. I have a deep fondness for angst-ridden teenage boys, and this has not waned even as I move further away from that phase of my own life. Thankfully, one can get a lot of mileage out of Holden Caulfield’s search for authenticity in The Catcher in the Rye, the competitive fire that makes and breaks Finny and Gene in A Separate Peace, and the question of destiny that motivates Owen and John’s friendship in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Even Harry Potter becomes a good bildungsroman when one can look beyond its magical trappings, even if it has diseased an entire generation with an overuse of adverbs.

Perhaps my favorite novel of the past ten years is The Art of Fielding, which falls into the same genre. While it bears many of the telltale signs of a debut novel in Chad Harbach’s attempts to show off his range, that flaw almost made me love it even more. It had so much in common with some of my own stumbling attempts to write fiction, and is exactly the sort of debut novel I would have been satisfied to produce. As long as they can attain some measure of distance in its perspective, youthful writings about youth resonate the best. I have little memory of reading The Outsiders in seventh grade, but suspect it would hold up well upon a second reading. (Fun aside: one of my hockey colleagues turned S.E. Hinton into a diehard St. Cloud Apollo hockey fan when he asked her for permission to play off the book while doing a story on the program’s fight for survival a few years back.) Alas, teenage boys are not a large literature market these days, which is problematic for my own stillborn writing career. If I do ever get around to publishing something, though, it will likely fall somewhere in this genre.

Speaking of which, I had a spurt of fictional inspiration this week, so I’m going to finish this blog post and stay up even later to head back to the nearly-complete story I’ve been spitting out on this blog for the past year. Long live the novel as an art form, and may all of my readers continue to read fiction for fun, even if it is trashy smut not worth the paper it’s printed on. (Actually, that sounds like it might be kinda fun. Pass along your recommendations.)

Byzantine Nights

22 May

This is part ten in a fictional series that started here.

Mark clambers up the stairwell to the fifth-floor Manhattan apartment. He loves his city, but this is still a sad substitute for what he grew up with. Here, there are no good trails to run, and he must settle for stairs, mindless stairs. He bolts to his floor’s landing before he decides this isn’t nearly enough. He plows onward, up to the fourteenth floor before he careens down to the lobby and then back up again. He’s had too much emotion over the course of one day, and Indira will only stir him up further. She’s always peevish on Thursdays, when her team at the U.N. meets and the Bangladeshi envoy will make a minimum of five passes at her over the course of their refugee resettlement talks. (To date, she’s declined Mark’s offers to meet him in a back alley with a cricket bat.) He knows this, and yet somehow he’d let her take dinner duty tonight, which will only mean she’s even more peevish. He should have just told her to forget it and picked up takeout on the way home, but that would have required a much more ordered state of mind than the one he now inhabits. Enough with this disorder garbage, he tells himself. Enough running up and down and anywhere but straight into his problems. He burst out of the stairwell, takes three deep breaths, and presses into his apartment.

“You look exhausted.”

“Took the stairs.” He pitches his shoulder bag on to a minimalist couch and offers his girlfriend a quick peck on the cheek.

“I assume the tears are just onion-related?” he asks.

Indira gazes down at a mangled array of vegetables on the cutting board. “Just mourning my life of domestic servitude.”

“If you wanna trade and be the kitchen wench tomorrow when we’re having everyone over instead…”

“Oh, forget it. How was your day?” she asks.

“Hard.”

“Do tell.”

“First off, I fought with my boss.”

“I thought you had a thing for Empress Theodora.”

Mark rolls his eyes, but this is as much a tactic to avoid making eye contact as it is an expression of angst. His managing director, Dora, is fond of him because he was the first underling she’d slept with who’d immediately recognized he wasn’t the sole object of her affection. She is exactly Mark’s sort of boss, jaded and casual in her use of her sweeping power. Indira, however, has posed an unexpected challenge in keeping up that rapport.

“They fired one of my analysts. I told them weeks ago he wasn’t getting much done. Didn’t hear a word, so I worked my ass off to get him up to speed. Coached him, took him out for drinks so we could talk outside of work…then boom, gone.”

“Did they tell you why?”

“Yeah, it was my complaint way back when. They’ve been monitoring him since.”

“But they didn’t say anything about it to you?”

“Not a thing.”

“That is crappy,” says Indira as she dumps olive oil into a pan on the stove.

“Yep. That’s what I told Dora.”

“So you went up and told her that they made the wrong choice? What, do you want to get fired?”

“No, that wasn’t it at all. I told her right away that I was fine with letting him go. He’s a mediocrity. I’m just pissed I worked my ass off for him and no one even thought to ask me about how he was coming along. I was stonewalled. Do you know how that feels?”

“I still think she should have fired your ass.” Indira realizes she is still pouring out oil and fails in her attempt to act as if she meant to pour out a full cup’s worth.

“Nah. She plays tough, but she knows right from wrong. I could see it in her. They know what I’m capable of. But they’re not gonna keep me if they don’t prove they trust me.” Mark frowns at the vat of oil but decides now is not the time to say anything about it.

“How much leverage do you actually have?”

“Hell if I know. Just mixed messages, all day long.”

“I thought you liked that sort of thing.”

“Not when my professional future’s in the balance.”

“Well, sorry your day sucked. I—”

“That was only half of it.”

“Oh?”

“I had lunch with my brother Matt.”

“Right, you told me about him,” says Indira, intently filling a garlic press. “This was the first time since, what, high school?”

“Middle school,” Mark replies. “He’s a good family guy, so he’s not an ass like John. He’s willing to listen. Not willing to forgive and forget like Lucy, though. Still bitter at Dad. Didn’t feel much sympathy when I told him how Dad died.”

In a way, Mark thinks, Matt’s reaction was the worst of his three half-siblings. He’d greeted Mark with a warm, burdened smile, chatted eagerly about Mark’s travels from Yale to Wall Street and around the globe with Evan for most of a lunch. Only when the talk turned to Pierpont Brennan did Matt clam up, and when Mark broached the possibility of meeting Matt’s wife and children, the lunch had come to an abrupt end. At least when John blew him off, he felt perfectly justified in blasting a string of epithets back at him. But this arm’s length respect, this refusal to accept reality despite an outwardly rational display: this is rank hypocrisy he cannot quite bring himself to call out.

“I…sorry, I wish I could say I get your family dynamic. I just don’t.”

“I can’t either. That’s why I’m trying.”

“I don’t know why you waste your time.”

“Listen, I might come from a fucking disaster of a family, but I’m gonna do what I can to make things right. I did with Lucy, and I’m gonna with Matt. There’s enough there that I can’t let this go.” Indira nods and turns her attention to her drowning fajita fixings.

“What I really want to do,” he adds, “is set up a date with my dad’s ex-wife.”

“Really? Why?” Mark senses her interest waning.

“She knew him better than anyone, and from what I hear, she’s still real sharp…way easier to talk to about my dad than my mom. I want to know all about him. About what he was like before he met my mom, about how it all went downhill. And beyond that, just a little more about who he was and what little things he did. He had to be more than what I saw.”

“You could just let the dead rest.”

Mark starts to head toward the bedroom to change clothes, but stops in his tracks and wheels back into the kitchen. “No. If there’s one thing about me, one thing that defines me more than anything else, it’s that I want to know. I want to fucking know,” he snarls. “Look at the analyst thing, look at my family, look and my entire freaking life. I’ve always been searching, always want answers. I’ve run to every corner of the planet trying to find them. And if anyone tries to hide anything from me…”

It is Indira’s turn to roll her eyes at Mark. “You take yourself so damn seriously.”

Mark lets his scowl block out his hurt. “Sorry my family matters to me.”

Indira sighs in consternation, but wrestles up a response. “Sometimes you just need to cut the bait. My Uncle Rajiv is a Hindu nationalist nut, it was drunken conspiracy theories every Thanksgiving, and sometimes he talked about grabbing his gun and blasting away all the Muslims who didn’t get it. So we just cut him off, and don’t even bother thinking about him anymore. It was liberating.”

“Maybe there’s a point where you have to do that. But losing a family, that’s a terrible thing. I’ve seen it so many times. This is why this country is freaking failing, cuz there’s all these broken families, and if someone doesn’t figure out how to pick up the pieces, it’s all going to hell.”

“You don’t need to put the burden of America’s future on your own family’s shoulders, you know.”

“Hah. Thanks for that.” Mark laughs and cuts himself off, but plays out the response in his head. No, whether or not he makes peace with his half-siblings will not change the fate of his country. But it is the final proving ground for himself. He’s done what he’s set out to do in hockey and in school, is getting there in his career, and even finally has something resembling a stable girlfriend now. But this is the last battle he has to fight to close the book on his childhood dreams and demons, the last war to prove he really does have the power he believes he does. He must win over the people whose lives were jolted irreparably by his own existence. If he can do this, he can conquer the world.

“You’re making my grandma’s korma for your writer friends tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I’ll be home at a reasonable time for once,” says Mark. “Sugar daddy’s gotta make sure he gets the details right.” And uses responsible amounts of oil, he thinks as Indira concedes and siphons some of it off into an empty can.

Mark has taken to hosting his salon at the apartment once a month, his effort to inject some culture into a life otherwise spent in the dreary, cutthroat world of finance. It probably says something about him that he has zero friends without benefits in his own business, and instead prefers the company of struggling writers and artists. He may earn six times their salaries, but at least they can carry on a conversation, and Mark takes more than a little pleasure in starting to dole out a little largesse. My patrons, he muses before starting to wonder if there will ever be any relationship in his life not defined by imbalances of wealth, or the pursuit of it.

“I’m going to tell the super feminist one you called yourself that,” Indira chides him.

“You make fun of Grace, yet you do more to call me out when I’m an asshole than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“And you’re the one who wants me.”

“I’m a masochist like that.”

“You’re ever the romantic, Mark Brennan.”

“Oh, I’ll make it up to you when we fuck later.”

Mark narrowly dodges the zucchini that flies over his head.

“Still got my goalie reflexes. There’s a green mark on the wall now, though.”

“If your landlord knows anything about you, she’ll know it’s justified.” She nails him in the face with the leftover onion.

Mark does his penance and collects the onion from the floor. Yes, he deserved that. His task complete, he leans in to dole out another kiss, massages Indira’s shoulders, and lets his arms wander downward. She reaches up and musses his perfect hair out of place before pushing him back so she can toss the vegetables on the stove.

“You’re a mess. Go wash that onion off of you and take off that sweaty suit. Put on some decent clothes.”

“Do I really have to do the decent clothes part?”

Indira allows her glare to answer for her. Mark makes a show of stripping his suit off and throws on a pair of pants and a shirt that he buttons halfway up.

“You’re such a child,” Indira says without lifting her eyes from her quickly blackening fixings.

“And you’re the one who wants me.”

“I’m running out of vegetables to throw at you.”

“You and me, we’re the King of Wall Street and the Queen of 42nd. This world is ours.” Mark dances out of the kitchen, chooses one of the two wine bottles left on the rack, and rummages through a drawer for a corkscrew. He’ll need another case or two for tomorrow night.

“Flattery has never been your specialty.”

“I must be doing something right to be a VP at 25.”

“Or maybe you’re just the best asshole in a world of assholes?” Indira says as she decides to solve her simmering vegetable crisis by dumping on a load of meat.

“Glad I’ve got you in my life to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world,” says Mark as he fights with the cork.

“Aristotle?”

“RFK.”

“I didn’t know you could quote anyone born after 1654.”

“I try to stay relevant, you know?” Mark hands her a glass, and she takes an immediate sip.

“Carménère?” she asks.

“You’re learning.”

“There you go, civilizing the world and making me refined.”

“See, you’re such a good influence on me.”

“God knows I try.” Indira pushes her glass away and refocuses her efforts on the meat.

“The power of love, or something like that.”

“You sound so sincere.”

“You really think a little love can change the world?”

“It sure wouldn’t hurt. Back it up with some sane laws and you’ve got a start.”

“Nah, that gets it all backwards,” Mark pontificates. “Don’t get me wrong, there are a few sincere people out there trying to do some good cuz they believe it all the way through—missionaries in Africa or whatever. But I’m not sure what pisses me off more. All the people who talk about love and caring and then spend their nights at home watching movies and living out sad little lives? Or the love and hope libs who treat anyone who disagrees with their methods like shit? Spare me. You want to change the world, you need power. Real power. Be the one who writes history. Maybe then you can build a safe little world where you can pass on some love.”

Indira narrows her eyes at him, but seems to pull back with her response. “You’re worse than those walking disaster Texans in Disaster Assistance. Just another ugly American cowboy.”

Mark swallows his retort and brushes his hair back into place. “I sure look the part, don’t I?”

“I suppose not. You with your perfect suits and baby face cheeks. I’d think you were gay if weren’t such a relentless womanizer. Unless that’s just your cover?”

“Way to stereotype. But I do think Evan and I would make pretty good lovers, don’t you?”

“Now there’s a real man on the frontier,” says Indira. “In his happy little cabin the woods with his happy little pregnant wife, working his happy little job. Living the dream, I guess.”

An unexpected defensiveness arises within Mark. “Just cuz Evvy decided to live somewhere other than the five acceptable cities for talented people doesn’t mean he’s not doing important work.”

“But—” Indira catches herself, and backs off: this is the rare battle she can tell Mark will not fight willingly. “Oh, never mind. Sorry. You know how Thursdays make me.”

“No worries. Need me to fuck up that Bangladeshi for you?”

“No, he wasn’t bad today. But the whole meeting was just painful. Five hours of talking in circles, and I’m just surrounded by grandstanding and bureaucrat-speak. I get why other people think we’re wasting our time.”

“I get what you mean. Sometimes I just want to blow shit up and watch it burn.”

“And I don’t doubt that you could. But you don’t.”

“No, not really.”

“For all your talk, sometimes you’re…just that. Talk.”

“Ouch. Thanks.”

“I wasn’t kidding.”

Indira levels a knowing stare at him. Mark loves this about Indira, her brutal honesty with him, but it still stings in the moment. He tries to muster up an expression that conveys all these thoughts at once, fails, and mumbles something about checking up on the markets in Asia. He retreats to the bedroom in defeat.

He shouldn’t force all of his shit on her, though he never thinks to apologize when he’s in the same room as her. He didn’t even follow up on her sudden and unexpected burst of career doubt. He just blathered self-righteously about his own problems, and ignored her as the dinner she didn’t care to cook descended into culinary chaos. Failure again.

No, he doesn’t fail. He needs answers. He’s searched for long enough now, and surely he’s stashed away something, somewhere that can be of some use. He pulls a desk drawer open and fishes out the notebook he has filled with details on all the couples he’s ever bothered to know in any detail. It’s his attempt to make sure he never becomes his own parents. He does what he can to analyze each of them to understand why the successful couples work and the failures fall apart. He stops on the longest entry, the one on Evan and Bridget, and reads it for the hundredth time. As much as he admires them, they just aren’t the comparison he needs. Their lives are too stable, their ambitions too different, and the vagaries of love are too fluid for his relentless analysis to bear. He slams the notebook shut and throws it back on the desk.

Mark glances up to his photo-covered walls, here in this one part of the apartment that he and Indira deign to decorate in pictures of real people instead of reproductions of great works of art or trinkets brought back from their travels. His eyes alight on a photo of himself and Evan at the Villa Adriana outside Rome. He sees two brash kids, one who’d just articulated a conquest of death, another who strove for panache in any situation of life. If Evan aspired to be St. Benedict, living his monastic life in a safe haven away from the forces of history, he aimed to be Constantine: the savior of civilization from debauched paganism, builder of the renewed empire.

Why this need to shepherd nations, to think of himself in such grandiose terms? Some of it just stems from his faith in his own ability to do it, faith tempered by knowledge of his own shortcomings. If he were made partner at his investment bank or put in charge of a government agency, he has no doubt he could mold it into whatever image he chooses. He’s been trained for this, an achievement machine, the perfect cog in a ruthless economy to plug in and achieve extraordinary productivity. He knows how to tailor his approach to every person who crosses his path, knows how to manage them, playing off their strengths and weaknesses to either get the most out of them or shunt them aside when they no longer serve him any purpose. Mastery is within his grasp.

He knows how arrogant it all sounds, knows that only with Evan and his most meatheaded finance bros can he crack jokes about how he was born to rule. Indira teases that she isn’t sure how she fell in for the poster child for the privileged patriarchy, and his tales of childhood woe only go so deep now that those sufferings are long in the past. He could easily just cut the cord. But what else could he do? He knows he’s been given many gifts, and whether through luck or fate or hard work, he’s now in a position to put them to some use. Or, he will be: he can do some things now, but imagine what he could do if he climbed into a c-suite, or perhaps made the jump over to the Fed or Treasury when he has the credentials to do so.

No one has ever pushed him to the brink, at least outside the confines of a hockey rink—how he misses that rush—and he feels somehow inadequate, not because he hasn’t performed up to expectations but because no one has ever tested his full potential. He almost wishes for crises so he can prove his worth.

There is no flaw that Mark cannot correct. He spends long nights stewing over his seeming shortcomings, his inability to reach the heights that only grow higher with each passing achievement. He records all these minutiae in his daily life, always in search of solutions. When he steps back to look at the sweep of the past few weeks, he sees it’s not all for naught. His careful cultivation of Dora, his interactions with his siblings, his dates with Indira, his dinners with his salon: he’s starting to get some things right here and there. He really has come some distance.

Just how far? Well, it’s all on the walls before him. He traces his full progression into manhood, from grinning high school kid with a boy band model look to a college jock with an explosion of dirty flow pouring out from beneath his cap to clean, professional Mark with his impeccable wardrobe and a glint of steel in his eye. He says he disdains the act and lives for himself, yet in every single one of these pictures he sees an act, some attempt to uphold some dual standard of class and conquest. He could scold himself for hypocrisy, but no, he should be proud of himself. He has set a standard, and time and again he meets it. The ruthless climber has, unwittingly, built a mission-driven life.

Mark’s eyes settle on the picture at the far end of the row of framed photos on his windowsill. It’s an old, candid shot by Bridget. Evan is a senior and he is a junior in high school. Evan runs a hand through his flow, and Mark looks on in a ridiculous all-white ensemble, head thrown back in laughter. Maybe he’s laughing at Evan’s vanity, maybe he’s laughing at Bridget’s insistence upon documenting everything; he can’t quite be sure now. But in this instance, he wants something that no amount of money or power or civilization will ever be able to get him. He wants it back.

This series continues here.