Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review: Flatscreen by Adam Wilson

By Adam Wilson
336 pp. Harper Perennial. $14.99 (Paperback Original) 

Eli Schwartz is 20-years old, not in college, and lives in his mother’s basement. Oh yea, and he can’t drive. If this sounds like a set up to bad joke about Dungeons and Dragons or other nerdly pursuits, you aren’t far off, except Eli’s realm of expertise is cooking and movies, and Adam Wilson’s debut novel has very few bad jokes.

Eli is Jewish, or at least “Jewish” in the modern/secular sense. He goes to temple on the Yom Kippur, but only after being reminded by his older brother, Benjy, that it is “the important one.” (The important one because it’s the most holy day for Jews, 10 days after the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah.) Beyond this, there is not a pervasive Jewishness to his story, a la Roth or Shteyngart, and yet the narrative has strains of each. There is a complaint-like “woe is me” quality to the novel, but one in which we are able to laugh along with, not at Eli.

The story, narrated by Eli, comes at us rapid fire. In the opening Eli is caught off-guard (pantsless) when his mother, showing off their house to potential buyers, bursts into his bedroom with a man in a wheelchair, Seymour Kahn, and his twenty-something daughter, Erin.  By page 40, Eli has gotten stoned in the woods with Kahn during Yom Kippur services, Benjy is dating Erin, and Eli, who would love to have Erin himself, is on the outside, like he has been for most portions of his life.

This is not to say that Eli is totally sexually inexperienced.  In one of the many interludes to the main narrative, set up in the form of bullet-pointed lists, Eli provides us with a summary of his sexual exploits. For a twenty-year old, his experiences are not nothing, but he is probably right in feeling behind his peers. The previous list is aptly titled, “Sexual Experiences,” others include, “Facts about my father,” and “On being funny.” These interludes do a good job of breaking up the narrative, and often provide some of the most poignant moments of the novel.

On the other hand, the parenthetical references to movies which are littered through the narrative are less successful. They, at times, feel forced, especially since some are real and some are fictional. Also, there wasn’t a situation where Eli earned his credibility as a movie expert in the way he earned his credibility as a foodie. On outings to Whole Foods (driven by his brother), he examines the freshness of produce like an expert chef. One such outing also sets up a later sexual encounter with the mother of a high school classmate.

Yes, Eli adds more than a few entries to his “sexual experiences” list during the novel. Kahn, who becomes a friend and father figure to Eli, also aids in this. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Kahn is still sex-crazed and enjoys drug-fueled sessions with strippers. He is sure that Eli is not having enough sex and aims to change that, in part with drugs. That situation leads to one of the darkly funniest moments of the novel.

Still, Flatscreen is more than a sexual novel. And calling it a “coming of age story” is a disservice to Wilson’s narrative brilliance. Yes, Eli ends the story in a different place than he began, certainly more mature and less drug-addled. He has “come of age.” But there is more than that. He sees a future for himself, but he is still not sure what it is. He envisions many possible “endings” for himself (which are really beginnings). These come in the form of movie-genre inspired hypotheticals, which Wilson integrates into the story much better than the movie parenthetical references mentioned above. 

Flatscreen is tragic, raunchy, darkly-funny, eventually hopeful and just plain fun. Wilson is a great new voice.

Please note: Flatscreen is a paperback original. You might not find it with hardcover new releases, depending on how your bookstore displays new books. Also, don't be confused that a just-released book is coming in paperback.

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