It’s not particularly important—compared, say, to the United States funneling billions to Ukraine without a shred of accounting of what that money is spent on, or whose checking account is fattened—but something that irritates me, a daily reader of fiction, is finishing a novel (excellent, worthwhile or so-so) and, despite knowing better, skimming the increasingly profuse “acknowledgements.” One can understand the desire, especially from debut writers, to thank a few family members and mentors, perhaps note a few source materials, but the laundry list at the back of many books is so self-indulgent that it leaves a sour taste for the preceding pages.
It reminds me of an election night victory speech from a candidate in a hotel ballroom—Senator, Governor, Dogcatcher—when the winner, almost always with spouse, paints a toothy (and fake) smile on his or her face, points several times to specific people in the crowd, mouthing “We did it!” and then reading specific names, plus “you know who you are” for the forgotten, and finally reciting a well-worn speech full of promises and vows to “put the people first” or other such baloney.
A few weeks ago I finished Nash Jenkins’ first novel, Foster Dade Explores the Cosmos, a 528-page effort (including six pages of acknowledgements) that has an engaging plot—the examination by an anonymous narrator about a drug scandal at a prep school in 2008-10—but is burdened by Jenkins diverting the reader from the story with his windy prose. I don’t remember how I came upon the novel—probably one of his friends on Twitter or Amazon, for Foster Dade hasn’t received the blessing of a review from any major newspaper—but it intrigued me for a couple of reasons. The time period is when my sons were in private school in Maryland—the brainy, likeable but self-loathing Foster Dade is from Baltimore—and the boarding school in the book is a stand-in for the Lawrenceville School (Jenkins is a graduate, along with Johns Hopkins), which, when I was 17 and went to a decent if redneck-infested public school, was about a mile from my home. And one of the strengths of Jenkins’ book is his keenly accurate descriptions of New Jersey, Baltimore and Manhattan. In the one year I lived in New Jersey, I’d drive or walk to Lawrenceville for the well-stocked newsstand, excellent diner, and to buy dime bags of weed from fellow hippies on campus.
I read someone compare Foster Dade to Donna Tartt’s nearly-perfect 1992 novel A Secret History, which isn’t fair to Jenkins, for while both novels have prep school settings, there are few writers today in Tartt’s league, even if, at 59, she’s produced just three books. Anyway, the short version of Jenkins’ book: Foster is a multi-faceted character you root for; despite a psychotic father and nutty mother, he’s quick, witty, a master of social media, has great pop music taste, and attempts, and succeeds, in ingratiating himself into the “in crowd” at Kennedy, largely due to his access to pharmaceuticals (Adderall and Vyvanse, among others) prescribed by a psychiatrist, which he accidentally parlays into a low-level drug business. The cash isn’t the main point; the interaction and acceptance by some spoiled rich lacrosse players and precocious girls is the prize. (Foster does, after considerable angst, find a girlfriend, although all the drugs he takes usually results in an inability to get it up.) The entitlement of those at Kennedy (they’re hardly aware of life beyond summer homes, servants and cheating for the grades necessary to attend an Ivy) is well-described; and though I was introduced to affluent young men and women at college, man, school is a different universe in the 21st century. I think Jenkins knew he went on too long—250 pages would be just right—but either he was too enamored of his own prose or simply couldn’t stop, and that’s the downfall. It could be Jenkins has just one novel in him—I hope that’s not the case—and made the best of it.
This short excerpt is typical of Jenkins’ flowery writing: “The afternoon beyond the windows was gothic and gray; the earth was soft and wet with October leaves, their naked branches petrified neurons against the November dark sky. The stillness of the kitchen trembled vaguely with the distant thudding slap of Susan Roth’s feet against the whir of the treadmill in the home gym two floors above.” This “poetic” nonsense, which pops up every fifth page numbs the reader who wants the compelling story to move along. When the book finally reaches its unsatisfactory conclusion—Jenkins explains in his short-story length acknowledgements that he wrestled with drafts twice as long as the final product—I was relieved, and also withdrew my premature recommendation to my 28-year-old son.
In contrast, Emma Cline’s second novel, The Guest—published in May—was a tonic for my weary eyes. The book—no acknowledgements—is just shy of 300 pages, and is a fast-moving, and thrilling story about Alex, a 22-year-old hedonist who moves around the Hamptons after getting kicked out of her (older) boyfriend Simon’s house for unseemly behavior. Alex left a troubled patch of time in Manhattan, and has five days to kill—with no fixed lodgings—before she intends to show up at Simon’s Labor Day party and win him back. She’s always short of money, a clever thief, pops pills and drinks to excess, a call girl, and a woman of considerable guile who does what she must to get by. Alex charms the caretaker and chef of an estate, and although he’s wary at first, succumbs to her advances and only kicks her out after she scratches one of his boss’ paintings. She meets a younger man at a pool (who claims he’s 19, but is 17, which momentarily gives Alex the willies when that’s revealed, but after a minute she sloughs it off with a “whatever”) and takes advantage of his connections, and access to homes, tacitly in exchange for disinterested sex (on her part), and then leaves the besotted teen in the lurch as Labor Day, and supposed salvation, beckons.
Cline’s prose consists of short, clipped sentences, and hardly a word is wasted. The reader has an almost complete picture of Alex by the novel’s end, though her future is unclear. Will she meld (and marry) into high society or end up knifed in a dumpy motel by the Atlantic, the victim of a “slumming” john. The Guest calls for a sequel (or at least a Hulu mini-series), but my impression is that Cline, well-toasted in literary circles, has grander ambitions.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023