Lust Down East
Courtship can be complicated on the coast of Maine.
Sep 3, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 47 • By STEFAN BECK
The countless reviews of Zachary Leader's Life of Kingsley Amis have made one thing clear: The reading public eagerly awaits the Second Coming of the Angry Young Man. Many decades have passed since he scorched the bedclothes in Amis's Lucky Jim or tumbled down a staircase, propelled by too many pink gins, in Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Literature has grown too sleepy, too sedentary, in his long absence. Where's this rough beast been hibernating, and when's he plan on slouching toward the Bombay Sapphire to be born?
For the faithful, there's good news and bad news. First, the good: The legendary menace enjoys a sort-of reincarnation in Nathan Empson, the hapless, ill-treated young hero of Brian Groh's debut novel, Summer People. Nathan is an aspiring (that is, broke) graphic novelist summering in a posh Maine coast town. This is no clambake, though: He's been hired to take care of Ellen Broderick, an old and fast-fading former beauty, while beating back mind-pureeing boredom, nursing a broken heart, and trying to make sense of the locals' mounting hostility.
Nathan has plenty to be angry about. Ellen's sons haven't informed him of her medical condition. Whether it's dementia or Alzheimer's disease is left to the reader to diagnose, but it makes little difference to Ellen's unprepared, overtaxed caregiver. Nor have they warned him that many of Ellen's neighbors eye her from the wreckage of spectacularly burned bridges. Nathan takes the heat for Ellen's past sins in a crucible of class warfare and guilt-by-association: What's a Cleveland college dropout doing in our little seaside paradise, and where's he get off helping that woman, anyway?
His only ally in the WASP nest of Brightonfield Cove is a punk-turned-pastor named Eldwin Lowell. The "cool priest," sadly, has been made a stock character by real life if not by literature, so Groh reassures us that "Eldwin Lowell had ashen crescents beneath his blue eyes, and looked more like an overworked professor than the eager boy-man ministers Nathan had known." Eldwin, with his drinking, his depressive wife, and his Aristotelian sermons, is a mature character and never merely a mouthpiece for convenient truths. He helps Nathan through rough spots, but not even their conversations are exempt from the uneasiness that permeates nearly every exchange in Summer People. Some of these are memorably awkward. Here's what happens when Nathan, mistaken for someone worthier, is invited on a yacht outing:
Nathan, with humility and aplomb, lets this ugly trout off the hook, but he daydreams about "a rogue wave that would wrench the yacht to the ocean floor, but allow Kendra to escape and flail for hours before being torn apart by a shark." These asides are satisfying, but the reader could do with more of them--and with more of them said out loud, preferably accompanied by Campari-and-sodas or platters of Oysters Rockefeller hurled at the offenders with great force.
That's the bad news. Nathan is angry, but that he tries--and often manages--to keep it to himself makes Summer People less bracing and hilarious than it might have been. Nathan is perfectly believable as a timid romantic, absorbed by his art and his private thoughts, but it's hard not to wish he'd unleash his inner Jaws on the unsuspecting sunbathers of Brightonfield Cove.
His pursuit of Eldwin's nanny, Leah, poses the same problem. What's become of boiling, unapologetic lust? Nathan's hides behind studied shyness and picnic baskets, portrait-sketching and red wine. Then again, he woos Leah just as one would an Abercrombie & Fitch model with a Crest White Strips smile and nothing much to say.
The reader asks, "What's he see in her?"--but it's more a question of what he sees on her: a black bikini, for instance. This makes his hopeless romanticism more vexing. Nathan could at least have the indecency to tell himself what it is he's after. Yet he doesn't seem to notice how many of their talks hinge on the dull or idiotic: adventures in babysitting, the pros and cons of threesomes, Angels in America--and so his delicate Fabergé egg of a courtship rolls along toward disappointment.
Not to mention trouble. Groh's update on the mustachio-twirling villain is a bicep-flexing makeout shark named Thayer. It isn't just that this eugenics miracle provokes Nathan's physical, sexual, and financial insecurities; he's also the grandson of Ellen Broderick's romantic rival. (Readers are advised not to dwell on the implications of this AARP love triangle.) Thayer can't hit a little old lady, naturally, so guess who winds up with the hematoma?
This "battle royal," along with several other over-the-top catastrophes (one of which won't go over too well with PETA), suggests that Groh is a comic talent with tremendous growth potential. He needs to hoist the black sail more frequently and with greater ferocity.
He might also cool it on the metaphysical angst. There seems to be a troubling consensus that literature, even funny literature, must also be brooding and deep. Stretches of hilarity are interrupted with what can only be called tragic relief. At the book's end, poor Nathan "felt like he had been long oppressed by a preoccupation with happiness--Was he happy? Was he really following his bliss?--and felt emboldened by the prospect of learning more about Aristotle, and thinking in terms of virtue and bravery."
Cue the world's most sophisticated violin.
Brian Groh and Nathan Empson do have many wise, sometimes moving, things to say. They are particularly canny about the regret and melancholy that can accumulate over a lifetime, even one well spent, and the reader profits from that understanding. These are Thoughtful Young Men, for sure, but one suspects that they have more Caddyshack than The Sorrows of Young Werther in their blood. They shouldn't be afraid to let it out.
It's summer vacation, after all, and we were all having such a good time.
Stefan Beck writes on fiction for the New York Sun, the New Criterion, and other publications.