When a novel begins with a paraplegic ex-actor waking up a privileged, tumescent 20-something slacker and asking him to score some weed, you know you’re about to spend the next 10 hours of your life in a bumper-car ride among the seamier aspects of the American bourgeoisie. Or you are if your guide is an honest writer who begins his first-person narrative with a randy cinéphile promising “guns, drugs, strippers, and other tenets of contemporary suburban life” and then proceeds to give you all that and more for 325 pages. Adam Wilson is an honest writer. FLATSCREEN, his debut novel, is the best kind of bumpy ride --- exhilarating, unpredictable and just a little scary.
This novel won’t be for all tastes. It’s gritty, vulgar and relentlessly unsentimental. But readers who can take it will be rewarded with vivid descriptions, thoughtful asides, a crackling pace, and a sardonic protagonist who makes Benjamin Braddock, the Dustin Hoffman character from The Graduate, seem focused and self-assured by comparison.
"Adam Wilson is an honest writer. FLATSCREEN, his début novel, is the best kind of bumpy ride --- exhilarating, unpredictable and just a little scary."
Eli Schwartz has spent so much of his life watching television that cooking programs have turned him into a gourmet chef. As the novel opens, that’s the only talent he’s willing to use --- that and taking drugs and sleeping with women, from former classmates to their mothers. Eli’s parents are long divorced, and his mother, whom he lives with in a suburban Boston mansion, has decided to sell the house and move into a condo. The buyer is Seymour J. Kahn, who doesn’t let his confinement to a wheelchair keep him from cheating on his latest wife, partaking of recreational drugs, and enjoying target practice in his new backyard. One of his daughters begins a relationship with Benjy, Eli’s older brother, a lawyer-in-training who tries to get Eli to find a job, or at least shower once in a while. But all Eli does is wander the town in his bathrobe, visit old buddies, sell his ill-gotten baseball card collection, and watch Kahn receive lap dances from a thong-clad caregiver.
There’s not much plot to FLASTSCREEN. The novel is a series of episodes that show Eli getting into progressively worse situations. His sexual escapades provoke a fistfight at Thanksgiving dinner. He gets caught breaking and entering. The biggest humiliation comes after he accepts Viagra and other pharmaceuticals from Kahn and winds up passed out in the end zone of a local football game with his drug-powered member pointed toward the sky. Video of the incident goes viral on YouTube.
See what I mean by a bumper-car ride?
All of this might have been too much to stomach in the hands of a lesser writer. But Wilson has a gift for relating these episodes in a way that doesn’t make you cringe. His narrative style takes getting used to. He often dispenses with subjects. “Picked up my prayer book, thumbed the pages, braided the fringes of my tallis,” is typical of his gumshoe-like prose. And not every character is fully developed. I wish I had known more about Kahn; his story would have been stronger if he had been more than the sad wreck depicted here.
But I’m quibbling. It’s to Wilson’s credit that he was able to take a genre as moth-eaten as the coming-of-age story and infuse it with freshness. Unpredictability works in the novel’s favor, too. Just when you think Wilson’s knees are going to buckle and he’ll lose his nerve and succumb to sweetness and redemption, along comes another devastation to complicate Eli’s life. Wilson relates these events in such a way that you never feel despair. You sense at the end that Eli will eventually untangle his knotty life, but you know the task won’t be easy, nor are you sure that every knot will yield without a struggle.
On the night that Eli and his mother move their belongings to the condo, Eli remarks upon the lack of illumination on the road. The only light comes from the headlights on his mother’s car. “Headlights don’t illuminate much,” Eli says. “[E]nough to keep us moving safely forward.” That’s an apt description of life, and, come to think of it, of a good novel. And that’s Wilson’s achievement here: to shine a light on a life poorly led, with just enough wattage to keep us interested.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on March 2, 2012