- Benjamin Nugent
- 224 pp.
- Reviewed by Y.S. Fing
- February 21, 2013
The sins of the father are revisited on the son in this debut novel by the author of American Nerd.
Have you ever wondered what your father does/did in his spare time? Did you ever find out?
In 1994, high school sophomore Josh Paquette and his father Linus, a snobbish English professor at a small college in western Massachusetts, go shopping at the local Gaia Foods. They run into Linus’ colleague, Nancy Dunn, and her daughter, Josh’s classmate, Khadijah Silvergate-Dunn. After some small talk, Nancy and Linus excuse themselves from their children and wander off, leaving the young adolescents to themselves. This turns out to be a bad idea, and the entire book resonates from this scene the way a long banner waves from the end of a long stick. The children stand about too awkwardly for comfort and then decide to spy on their parents.
The drama they witness, played out in public for Linus and Nancy, but in an intimately shared silence by Josh and Khadijah, delivers three key revelations to Josh: first, he doesn’t know his father well; second, his father is a selfish liar; and third, he has developed a fixation with Khadijah (that will last for the next 15 years). The story is propelled by this big bang, which unites Khadijah and Josh in angst about their identities. Josh is drawn to Khadijah’s rebellious acting out and at the same time recognizes an utter vacuity in himself. He clings to the symbols of their connection during this time of destruction to their lives and self-understandings. Josh fixates on a graffiti-marked stone (of which more below) and makes a pledge with Khadijah to never cheat on anyone. In the wake of their family break-ups, within months of the visit to Gaia Foods Josh and Khadijah are separated.
In the brief second part of the book we learn that Linus and Nancy ended their affair almost immediately after their family break-ups. We instead see Linus introducing Allison, who is from a rich New York family. Josh also describes his college years: “At New York University, still bashful, still a virgin, I made a life philosophy of loneliness. I perused the thrift stores of Queens for silent hours. I spent afternoons before the mirror.” He reveals that he tried on rock ‘n’ roll clothes and poses, and “played guitar and sang to myself, in dorm rooms only blocks from the Tribeca loft my father now shared with Allison.”
Josh yearns in emptiness: “New York was a place to acquire a surface so rich with sophistication that the nutrients in my topsoil would leach down to my core and make me a real rock musician, and if that didn’t work, I hoped I could at least construct a shell so complex and subtle and bewitching that people more sure of themselves, people who had the right exterior and the right interior, would mistake me as one of their own and take me in.” Thus, Nugent suggests, divorce hollows out the character of the children. They don’t know who to be, nor how to be it.
Poor Josh, spiritually bereft and professionally adrift. He joins a band, Shapeshifter, and goes to L.A. where they meet with a modicum of success. His social life consists of judging people based on the clothes they wear and the music they listen to. After the band breaks up, Josh continues to obtain royalties for the commercial use of one of their songs, “This is Just Wrong.” He meets Julie, who becomes his long-suffering girlfriend. She earns more than a modicum of success as the host of a sardonic TV show called “Julie vs. Animals.” Their minor celebrity status is a balm and comfort to both of them, but it doesn’t save them from the vacuum at Josh’s moral center.
For Josh, Khadijah is always there. The rebelliousness and authenticity she showed in 1994 are symbolized by the graffiti-marked stone she threw through an office window; this act indirectly, but in very little time, brought them to the destruction of their families. The stone represents the kind of integrity that Josh knows he does not have, a fact which haunts him.
Finally, in 2007 Khadijah crosses Josh’s path again in Southern California. She is dating one of his band mates. In spite of the intervening years, the bond between them remains strong — Josh kept his vow to be monogamous, and he promptly asks her about her own situation. She confirms that she has never cheated on anybody. So, Josh is thrilled and tormented that Khadijah is back in his life, and the tension with Julie immediately rises. Especially since Josh harbors romantic impulses that he can’t stop himself from acting upon, which complicates matters for all three of them. When the climactic moment occurs, that graffiti-marked stone has literally been in each of their hands. In consequence, the sins of the father revisit. While it isn’t the central relation of the book, Josh’s great emptiness stems from his estrangement from his father.
Stories about vacuous people living lives of quiet desperation, where fashion designer Marc Jacobs’ stores appear repeatedly, where nobody knows what’s wrong with themselves and it seems like everyone is in a movie, tend to reveal more the determined purpose of the author to make it in Hollywood than anything about the characters themselves. Nugent can’t be so accused, but this book has not a small whiff of Less than Zero to it. The novel also has Hemingway-esque narrative tightness and dialogue. In Benjamin Nugent, the reader may sense a talented young American looking to encapsulate a generationally-defining vision of his country. In this case, it is a noble mission, if not a thorough success.
Y.S. Fing, an instructor of English at a university in the D.C. area, is the author of such unpublished works as“Socialize Yourself: A Teacher’s and Student’s Guide to College- Level Composition” and “Event Horizons: Aphorisms on the Life of D. Selby Fing” (www.dselbyfing.com).