***EXCLUSIVE QUOTE #1***
"...You know how boring jails gets."
"Yeah, totally." I did not know.
The eponymous lead character/narrator of Ben Nadler's debut novel is a punk. Sammy Harvitz rejects what he is expected to do (or what he thinks he is expected to do). He rejects the status quo. But rejection of one thing can only can so far before it leads to embrace of another. Harvitz consistently finds himself in "FUBAR" situations, as the military lingo might go. His father is somewhat of a deadbeat, his mother dies when he is young. He migrates towards the punk movement, which is never short of its Sids and Nancies. Harvitz joins the military: at this point it should be clear to you that this protagonist doesn't get much of a smooth ride in this novel.
Ben Nadler is the author. Ben Nadler is therefore the novel's God. God does not like Sammy Harvitz, or at the very least God doesn't give a shit. This is how a book should be written.
Harvitz is far and away the most prominent character of the novel, but there are some gems to be found here in the supporting roles. Harvitz's grandfather, a proud old Jewish man, is a voice of reason in the life of Harvitz. With the early death of his mother and the often lacking parental guidance of his father, the grandfather is a less frequent yet quite poignant presence in the novel. He represents the tradition ("3000 years of Jewish heritage") and patriarchy, while the father represents a former hippie, former middle-class worker, early retiree, turned sour on life. Harvitz struggles with the shadows of these two characters. His volatility stems in many ways from each of them. I am beginning to sound Psychanalytic, which I hate, and so I am going to move on.
The other most striking characters for me were the buddies he makes in the military. Not surprisingly, the punk Harvitz gravitates to the more intellectual and introverted members of his unit.
***EXCLUSIVE QUOTE #2***
I felt a little bit like a wild animal that she had brought home. I liked feeling like that.
The landscapes of this novel are vivid, despite the fact that Nadler spends much less time on poetry and much more time on action. The novel doesn't really slow down. The text moves from exposition to scenes heavy with dialogue, and that process is repeated throughout much of the book. Throughout the novel, we see Philadelphia, New Jersey, Manhattan, Brooklyn, California, Florida, and a whole lot of spaces in between. The periods when Harvitz pauses to reflect are powerful, as well.
The language of the book is not too distinguished, by which I mean it doesn't really go too far towards minimalism or maximalism, those dirty binary terms that I am using in spite of my disgust. The language is fairly simply, so I suppose I should call it more minimalistic, but it doesn't go too far and there isn't a discernible ideological strategy at work in the way the words appear on the page. That said, the voice is consistent, and what more can we ask from a writer?
I highly recommend this novel. Sure, the stories of patriotism and patriarchy (and their rejection) have been told before. But J.D. Salinger is dead, and J.D. Salinger didn't grow up in an era of endless strip malls and the great overcrowded yet increasingly homogenous culture we now know.
I was reminded of Russell Banks' Rule of the Bone as I read this---and in terms of really good literature about young adults that is a high mark for the past several decades. Harvitz wants to find comfort and peace, but the only routes he knows to those ideals are littered with pain and self-destruction. It is a bible (lowercase on purpose) for all young people who are confused and angry with the bullshit.
***EXCLUSIVE QUOTE #3***
"Well, choosing to serve in the Army is a big decision. But there's no reason to be nervous here today. We're just hanging out. Consider me your buddy!"
OUT NOW ON IRON DIESEL PRESS