Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The autumn of discontent

 There are two people in the world: those who read Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and felt a soul-deep kindship with Holden Caulfield and those who threw the book across the room and shrieked that he was an insufferable ass.

I fall into the latter category - and I have noticed the first category seems to skew more heavily towards men and those who read it before turning 18 - but, that aside, halfway through The November Criminals I slammed the book down and yelled Sam Munson, I know what you're doing!

Munson's Addison Schacht is the second coming of Holden Caulfield, and Munson knows it: self-absorbed, pretentious, and casually cruel. Which works, because, hey, have you had a conversation with a teenage boy lately? No? Of course not! It's nearly impossible, since they walk around in a lacquer of agonizing self-consciousness.

The November Criminals is a weird genre mishmash, taking the form of a polemical college application essay that Addison writes, trying to explain what he considers his best and worst features, and a slack whodunit that veers off the rails. There are, however, quick flashes of emotion that manage to pierce the book's thick crust of self-aggrandizement, but these are far too rare.

Addison Schacht lives in Washington, D.C., with his failed-potter father, and goes to a private school, secure in a little bubble of affluence but self-aware enough to recognize it. Schacht is also a low-level pot dealer, selling to his upper-class classmates, and spending most of his free time getting ridiculously baked with his best friend Digger. He and Digger (real name, Phoebe) have a torturously complicated relationship that allows them to sleep together and spend most of their time together but strictly forbids any sort of boyfriend/girlfriendy interaction.

One of Addison's classmates, a quiet, studious kid named Kevin Broadus, is shot along with two coworkers at the coffeeshop where he works (a rip-off of Starbucks called Stubb's). Addison and Kevin weren't friends, but for some reason Addison takes it upon himself to start investigating Kevin's death. With a tip from his pot supplier, a morbidly obese kid named Noel who runs dogfights in his basement, Addison thinks he's on the trail of Kevin's killer, a racist redneck from Montgomery County.

Except he's not, which Addison and Digger find out after a weirdly violent drive to the redneck's house, which puts them back where they started. And...that's it. Addison never gets any farther in his investigation and the novel just sort of...ends.

Addison has a rather eloquent inner monologue, but whenever Munson lets him open his mouth, it comes out in sqawks of indignation and repeated likes, which is simultaneously extraordinarily irritating and effective, showing how Addison chokes and strangles when he tries to communicate with anyone.

We're never really sure why Addison is doing what he's doing - he's open about not particularly caring about Kevin or his death - and he revels in being consciously mean to the kids for whom he's reserved most of his ire: the hapless do-gooders in his class, particularly one sanctimonious girl named Alex Faustner. Addison's observations about his school's systemically racist Gifted and Talented program and the clueless teachers are sharp and incisive, but Addison prefers to provoke with offensiveness when given the chance.

The book is at its best towards the end, when Addison starts to unravel and Munson devotes a little time to Addison's relationship with his depressive, anxious father. Ultimately the book is pretty hollow and the ending slack. And this may just be me, but Munson has Addison running around DC with a pager and frantically trying to find payphones, which seems very late 90s in the blip of time between pager and cellphone evolution, a misstep that any teen who reads this book will doubtless pick up on.

1 comment:

  1. I read 'Catcher in the Rye' in high school because I HAD TO. I re-read it recently and I did not notice or comprehend the two paragraphs about his school friend's horrible and dramatic suicide during the first read. He already had issues and that sent him completely over the top.