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Book Review: The Low Achiever

A debut novel of alienation and scholastic aptitude.

Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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The November Criminals

Book Review: The Low Achiever

by Sam Munson
Doubleday, 258 pp., $24.95

Addison Schacht, the protagonist of Sam Munson’s debut novel, is a foul-mouthed 18-year-old dope dealer who lives in an affluent neighborhood in Washington. He tells disgusting jokes about the Holocaust. He is rude to his single father, his girlfriend, his teachers, and his fellow students. He has few friends. He’s enrolled in the gifted and talented program at John F. Kennedy Senior High School in the District, where he’s applying to the University of Chicago. He scored a combined 1420 on the SAT, got excellent marks on his Advanced Placement exams, and won both silver and gold medals in the National Latin Exam. He quotes Virgil. He is, in other words, one of those intelligent, arrogant, and troublemaking teenagers whom you’d want to rap upside the head and ship off to a military academy in rural Virginia.

Schacht chooses to describe his best and worst qualities for his college application essay. What follows is a discursive and gripping story that describes the brutal murder of one of Schacht’s classmates, Kevin Broadus, and Schacht’s attempt to identify Broadus’s killer. A quiet, well-liked member of the school band, Broadus and two coworkers were gunned down while working at a coffee shop in Georgetown the summer before his and Schacht’s senior year. The gunman left no trace. The only thing he stole was Broadus’s wristwatch. The eagerness of school administrators to put the shocking murder behind them provokes Schacht into action. The fact that Broadus is African American also plays a role: The community’s apparent eagerness to forget the murder of a young black man and get on with life represents, to Schacht, a much larger betrayal of American ideals.

Or something. It soon becomes clear that Schacht’s investigation into Broadus’s murder is more about satisfying some unfilled need in Schacht than in pursuing justice. For the truth is that, by the end of the book, the reader still hasn’t figured out what makes the narrator so angry. That he is angry is unmistakable: Indeed, he is a living, breathing embodiment of antisocial behavior. The drug dealing and abuse are just the beginning. He curses at everyone he meets, including the reader. He skips school. He breaks into homes. He disrupts class. He and a friend hold a suspect hostage at gunpoint; the friend has just shot dead the suspect’s dog.

Schacht lies. He lies to his father about his after-school activities. He lies to the police and teachers and Kevin Broadus’s parents when he tells them that he and the victim were friends. He lies to himself when he pretends that there is no emotional content to his sexual relationship with Phoebe “Digger” Zeleny, another teenager who believes herself superior to her environment and who is the closest thing Schacht has to a best friend.

The college essay that comprises the novel, moreover, is a kind of double lie. Either Schacht won’t submit it, in which case he’ll betray his sense of superiority and subversive honesty, or he will submit it, in which case he’ll betray his pretensions of ambivalence over his future. Schacht himself seems aware of the duplicity that characterizes his existence: “I believe with all firmness that I am a November Criminal,” he says, “a betrayer by nature. Someone guilty at the feet of everyone else for his petty, sordid life and his petty, sordid crimes. An ontological failure.”

Harsh stuff. But it doesn’t take a cynic to see that it’s also stuff that might appeal to a college admissions officer looking to place the next Kerouac or Rimbaud in Chicago’s Class of 2004. It may be that Schacht is more calculating and manipulative than he appears: His text is filled with arcane cultural references and difficult vocabulary intended to set him apart from the bulk of college applicants. Take the Virgil, for example. He also digresses at length about The Sorrow and the Pity, the documentary on French collaboration with the Nazis, which he says he watches “at least” twice a year—and which has been required viewing for wannabe intellectuals since Alvy Singer dragged Annie Hall to see it in 1977. He references obscure works of German historiography. He often uses italics to emphasize all the important things he is saying. The ironic and dramatic humor that infuses his story makes for an entertaining read. Schacht is a heck of a writer. I’d admit him.

Munson’s portrait of Schacht is so finely wrought that it is easy to mistake this fictional narrator for an actual person. What makes November Criminals such a good debut, then, is that it is really two mysteries. There is the puzzle of Kevin Broadus’s murder, to be sure; but there is also the larger conundrum of Addison Schacht. Why does a young man of so much ability and promise hold such contempt for society? The reader comes across a clue when Schacht mentions his mother, who died of a brain hemorrhage when he was seven years old. Later, during a visit to his marijuana distributor—an obese child of privilege who dropped out of school to live in one of Washington’s “transitioning” neighborhoods— Schacht attends a dogfight and is revolted by the cruelty he witnesses.

“Remember what I said before about how you can’t manage tragedy?” he asks. “You can’t. You can’t stop Mr. Circumstance. He waits everywhere, with infinite patience and zero mercy. You can’t avoid or efface the bleak sight of the wrecks and ruins he leaves among us.”

The problem Schacht is trying to solve, in other words, is the problem of evil. That evil exists makes no sense to the budding rationalist. He lacks an explanation for why bad things happen to good people (his mother, Kevin Broadus) or innocent creatures (dogs). He is thrown, therefore, into the same existential despair and moral relativism that has plagued many Western writers for more than a century. This is why it is important to learn that Schacht and his father, while Jewish, have no religion. Schacht’s intellectual dilemma doesn’t even rise to the level of theodicy, i.e., reconciling the existence of God with the existence of evil. Theodicy presupposes belief in the divine. In Schacht’s corner of the nation’s capital, however, there is room for wealth and sex and drugs but none for the supernatural. There is no map to life, no binding moral code.

No wonder he is confused and angry. The death that bothers Addison Schacht the most, the reason for his fury at the world around him, is not the murder of Kevin Broadus. It is the death of God.

Matthew Continetti, opinion editor at The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of The Persecution of Sarah Palin


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