The Magazine

Lust Down East

Courtship can be complicated on the coast of Maine.

Sep 3, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 47 • By STEFAN BECK
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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.