New books — From the March 2013 issue

New Books

Download Pdf
Read Online

Since Don Quixote, the essential subject of the novel has been geography: what is out there, who lives there, how they are different from characters who live in other landscapes. Themes are always particular to place; style, too, derives its piquancy from dialect and locale. Three new novels extend this tradition, but they are as remarkably different from one another as the landscapes they explore.

The Good Kids of Benjamin Nugent’s debut (Scribner, $23) are never not aware of their self-consciously counterculture environment, a liberal college town in Massachusetts where on Language Day at the high school, Josh, who takes Russian, sells borscht a few feet from where Khadijah (who owes her first name to her mother’s “Sufi years”) sells mousse (she studies French). After the festival the kids go to the ethnic-grocery store, Gaia, and witness their parents Linus and Nancy kissing in the candy aisle. This revelation is soon followed by two divorces (“People don’t hold it against you if you get divorced in Wattsbury”). The unexpected connection at first gives Josh and Khadijah a sense of fellowship and then pulls them apart after Nancy and her husband break up.

Nancy moves to Cambridge, taking Khadijah; Josh and his father move to New York City. “Most of my friends from high school,” Josh remarks, “wound up in either Boston or Brooklyn, depending on whether their salient ambition was to be smart or to be cool.” Among the many things Josh holds against his father is that Linus blames parenthood for his own failure to follow his dream, which was to move to France and write essays in the tradition of Montaigne. Instead of doing that, Linus takes up with Allison (whose father funds Linus’s nonprofit), finds an apartment in TriBeCa, and eats macrobiotic take-out while Josh practices guitar riffs by day and hunts for “a future Patti Smith and a future Patti Smith Group” at a “bar or at an unsanitary party or in the apartment of a rich, pervy benefactor” by night. Josh understands that he is some combination of shallow and nerdy — he cannot make friends, and the few times he socializes he “would monologue about the way reverb functioned in an Olivia Tremor Control song, or about the varieties of Sonic Youth T-shirts designed in North Carolina by Tannis Root.”

Every day in Nugent’s novel is Language Day. Josh labels himself shallow because he can’t help being swept up by the ways people express themselves (and Nugent has an excellent ear for the clashing notes of our popular cacophony). Of L.A., Josh observes:

I liked how whorish it was, how fast. And when I arrived in Los Angeles, driving the lead wagon west, sun-dazzled, sweating in my Cat Power T-shirt, the city lived up to a shocking number of clichés regarding whorishness and speed and commerce and art, because so many people, like me, had just arrived and were determined to make it live up to those clichés.

Josh’s band achieves modest success when one of its tracks finds an audience; soon Josh’s style takes on a frenetic rhythm that is comic, anxious, doomed, and filled with brands, hip spots, nervous nicknames, edgy observations. People locate themselves as soon as they meet — not by saying where they live but by saying what they prefer. “Gordon says you’re indie rock. You should know: I’m not into that. Everybody’s like, ‘Neutral Milk Hotel. Fuckin’ Wilco.’ Ich. I like Jennifer Lopez and Destiny’s Child.”

Josh sometimes worries that he has gotten over Khadijah and sometimes worries that he hasn’t. The answer might be Julie, star of a science-channel show, Julie vs. Animals, but maybe not — as Josh and Julie, standing at their house’s adjoining bathroom sinks, get ready for yet another party, Josh looks into the mirror: “I saw a twenty-eight-year-old and a twenty-nine-year-old assessing the persistence of youth’s afterglow in their faces. I saw a couple calculating its worth in the eyes of the world.” Josh has felt the eyes of the world for as long as he can remember — in Massachusetts, in New York, in L.A. For him, these places exist as styles of rhetoric and self-presentation; they are places that, as Josh comes to understand, prevent him from locating himself in the real world.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 3

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf

More from Jane Smiley:

New books From the November 2013 issue

New Books

New books From the September 2013 issue

New Books

New books From the July 2013 issue

New Books

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada


October 2019


You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.