American Spirit

  • Dan Kennedy
  • Little A/New Harvest
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by
  • May 30, 2013

A down-on-his luck media executive stumbles through life and contemplates the end in this black comedy.

If you’re a writer who submits columns to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency on a regular basis, only to see your finest rhetorical vehicles crash and burn against the concrete wall of its editorial review, chances are pretty good you’re jealous of Dan Kennedy’s work for that publication. He not only manages to craft bitter, effective comedy out of life’s darker corners — egregious substance abuse, financial collapse, depression and death — but he makes it look easy.

Now he’s releasing a book that extends his particular brand of black comedy to novel length. Does he succeed with the longer format? That’s a good question with a highly subjective answer. 

If you’re looking for a plot as tight and intricate as a Swiss timepiece, that answer is a firm “no.” Kennedy’s protagonist, a just-fired media executive named Matthew, spends the majority of the book wandering aimlessly around the suburbs of New York and points beyond, his consciousness warped by a high-octane combination of beer, pills, anger and the omnipresent fear that something very bad is growing inside his body. There are adventures, of a sort: Matthew briefly takes up drug dealing in order to buy a secondhand gun, starts a small business in ceramic mugs with cute/creepy phrases written on the outside (“God will help you find a gun if you’re grateful”), plunges into an affair with a high-powered Hollywood agent, hangs out with a bunch of spiritual lunatics in a whale-sized RV rumbling through Yellowstone and so on. Matthew is a sad sack, but one liable to earn a considerable amount of sympathy from the reader, if only because of his a) tragic back story and b) amusing befuddlement in the face of all the bad things that keep befalling him. 

As an author, you can go far with a protagonist who possesses ample amounts of a) and b). But Kennedy doesn’t coast on sympathy for his poor devil. When it comes to shaping a novel, he demonstrates a considerable amount of tactical skill — chapters move at a confident pace, and he takes care to weave seemingly innocuous details into the plot that become important later; but for good or ill, a taut thriller this is not.

Indeed, Kennedy enjoys digressing, breaking away from the story for long riffs on how we are all totally, irrevocably doomed. “We love people who will fade back to helpless, hunched infants in front of us or disappear in a flash too fast for us to have ever really gotten started on life with them,” reads one representative passage, “much less had the time to say goodbye.” Your own mileage with such material may vary; those with precious little tolerance for navel-gazing will need considerable force of will to finish the book, much less prevent themselves from using it as a doorstop. For what it’s worth, Kennedy is an expert at flipping such morbidity on its head, punctuating most long monologues on death and dissolution with a comic beat: a character accidentally setting his hand on fire, for example, or Matthew launching into a heroic speech about bravado without realizing that, in his post-operative haze of painkillers, the only thing his audience can hear is a vague slurring about pasta.

Kennedy also slams on the brakes before his characters tumble into the abyss, assuring most of them a (relatively) happy ending: the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel may be a faint and flickering thing, but he’s unwilling to make it the headlight of an oncoming train. This doesn’t feel like a cop-out; it’s a violation of the form to end a comedy on a downbeat note, even if your protagonist has spent the past 350 or so pages scraping along the prickly bottom of the American Dream. (It’s tragedy’s job to end everything in despair.) If you’re looking for a novel that offers more than its share of mordant laughs, and moves at a lively pace despite its dark tangents, American Spirit is a solid choice. 

Nick Kolakowski is an editor at Slashdot. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, Carrier Pigeon and Washington City Paper. His first book, a work of comedic nonfiction titled How to Become an Intellectual, was published by Adams Media in 2012.


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