Skip to main content

All The Sad Young Literary Men


All The Sad Young Literary Men

Sam, Mark and Keith. They’re three semi-eligible,
attractive-enough college graduates who study Soviet history, the
Arab-Israeli conflict and American politics. They fumble through
love lives --- philandering and obsessing all the way --- as well
as pretty much everything else. They adore philosophizing in all
the wrong ways, pondering “the great sociorelational problems
of our time --- Ferdinand’s sex life, usually.” Have I
mentioned they use Hegel to this end?

Keith Gessen’s smart, scathing portrait of these boy-men is
blisteringly and painfully funny, at first seeming unsympathetic,
but on a deeper level, far too understanding to be dismissive and
cold-hearted. His descriptions of their motivations and crises are
spot-on, and to know these men so well --- that is its own form of

ALL THE SAD YOUNG LITERARY MEN begins in college, as Keith takes
the first plunge into adulthood by making all the wrong moves ---
alienating everyone he shouldn’t while dogmatically following
the “world-historical hero”/womanizer Ferdinand,
questioning all the wrong things while ignoring the real challenges
before him, fearing about the future while disregarding the present
--- all of which make his fears come true.

Next up on the carnival of failure is Sam, a wishy-washy Zionist
(if you can imagine such a thing) more interested in the aesthetics
and social status of Zionism than its actual ideals. After deciding
to write the “great Zionist novel,” he becomes
completely absorbed to the point of losing his girlfriend as well
as his job, which may be fine if he were really writing the great
Zionist novel. But instead his absorption is all self-absorption,
which ultimately drives his book to fail just as much as everything

The novel tells these stories in cycles divided into three parts,
beginning roughly in college and ending with some glimmer of hope
for a semi-functional adulthood more plagued by everyday suffering
than neurotic misery. It switches off between Mark, Keith and Sam,
told with various points of view but with the same razor-sharp
tone. From these brief episodes we are able to construct whole
lives for these men, and drawing the connections between timelines
is easy. It is no surprise, we can smugly say to ourselves, that
another woman has left him --- of course it was going to

Gessen also makes obvious that this isn’t just a novel to
point and laugh at some book-smart nerds. In the latter half of the
text, he tones down the juicy, scathing criticism in favor of a
subtler view of the real difficulties associated with having little
to say for one’s self but a liberal arts degree and a whole
lot of doubt. For all the comedy, their problems are rendered
realistically and forcefully, making them disturbingly genuine.
Unfortunately, the writing quality decreases markedly --- Gessen is
best with the dark comedy. The prose loses its snap and rhythm, and
while the changing storylines prevent the narrative from being
repetitively dull, it feels comparatively lackluster.

As a whole, though, ALL THE SAD YOUNG LITERARY MEN tells a story
all-too familiar for many readers in their early- and mid-twenties,
evoking all the terror and uncertainty as well as the neuroses that
can so easily swamp us. Do we feel bad for these men?
Perhaps. But Gessen’s real achievement is to rescue them from
the realm of the trivial, to make their numerous problems relevant
and relatable.


Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on December 22, 2010

All The Sad Young Literary Men
by Keith Gessen

  • Publication Date: April 10, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0670018554
  • ISBN-13: 9780670018550