Book Review: The Best of Youth
by Michael Dahlie
W. W. Norton, 2013
The moral architecture of the phenomenon known as ‘blurbing’ is wobbly at best – publishers solicit these little snippets of ad-speak from authors on behalf of other authors, but there’s usually not even the polite dress of accountability. Blurbing authors have not read the work they’re blurbing – they aren’t reviewers, they aren’t offering critical appraisals – rather, they’re indulging in a little harmless self-advertising.
Only the results aren’t entirely harmless, as anybody who’s ever been tricked by a blurb can attest. The back cover of Michael Dahlie’s new novel The Best of Youth is a perfect example: it’s a veritable minefield of black-faced lies. Tom Perrotta calls the book “thoroughly engaging” when it most certainly is not – leaving off reading in order to answer the doorbell or put the tea on is something the reader will do with complete, almost unconscious ease. Richard Russo praises the “seeming effortlessness” of the book’s prose – delusionally, since even a well-disposed reader will notice how quickly Dahlie gets winded by the few complex set-pieces he attempts, and how often he lazily repeats himself (if you made it a drinking game – one shot of whiskey every time he writes “at any rate” – you’ll be very happy by the end of Part I and clinically dead by the end of Part II). Matthew Quick, exceedingly lucky author of The Silver Linings Playbook, calls The Best of Youth “seriously funny,” but aside from precisely one passage in its 259 pages, it isn’t. Hillary Jordan compares Dahlie to Jane Austen, which ought to be enough to embarrass just about anybody.
Customers buying the book on the strength of such carnival barking will be disappointed, and that does a couple of kinds of harm – because apart from the hysterically unreasonable placards hanging all over it, The Best of Youth is an enjoyable little amble of a book.
The plot centers on young Henry Lang, who loses both his parents in a freak boating accident off Martha’s Vineyard but inherits fifteen million dollars as a result (there’s no actual dramatic reason for this; you get the sense that it’s only here because, like so much else in this book, it was a first-draft whim that never got weeded out). He uses some of that money to help fund a new Brooklyn literary magazine called Suckerhead, and he takes to pining after his fourth cousin Abby, and he accepts a job ghost-writing a book for Hollywood star Jonathan Kipling.
Henry, equal parts Bertie Wooster and Chauncey Gardiner, more or less stumbles into each of these plot developments, his emotional tepidity reflected in Dahlie’s indifferent phrasings (characters eat at “some kind of Czech restaurant” or buy noodles at “some kind of Asian health food store”) and angrily commented on by his handful of friends. Even when Kipling’s shabby treatment of Abby (they begin dating, mostly because this is a novel) sparks some passion in Henry, its momentum is almost entirely cancelled out by the author’s unfortunate penchant for ‘and-then, and-then’ narrative plodding:
At any rate, it had been a terrible day, and Henry was barely able to get out of bed the next morning. But the fact was, as he acknowledged with a blanket pulled tight around his neck, he did have dinner that night with Sasha and Whitney to look forward to. Thus, he eventually roused himself and got his coffeemaker going …
Even when romance begins to blossom between Henry and Sasha, the writing is so borderline clinical that it often comes across as plot summary rather than plot:
Henry and Sasha went out that night, and the next, and both evenings ended with kissing on street corners and even kissing a few times in bars. This was not a thing that Henry particularly felt comfortable with (the public nature of their affection), but it was hard to avoid since it made him feel so happy.
Henry is told “There’s just a bunch of people in the world who get away with a lot, and Kipling is one of them,” but his low-key outrage over Kipling’s treatment of Abby eventually prompts him (in one of the novel’s best scenes) to a drastic step, about which a friend warns him in prose that’s not exactly Jamesian:
“I would have done the same. Or I hope I’d have had the courage that you did. But Henry, you’re really fucked with this. You’re really, really fucked. Really, really fucked. You’re totally right to have done what you’ve done, but you’re really, really fucked with this.”
Dahlie has won the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award (for an echo of what Hemingway himself would have thought of this novel, see the above excerpt again), and the very existence of blurbs from front-list names like Perrotta or Russo bespeaks a well-connected author. And there are skills on display in The Best of Youth that could sustain a career: an appealingly old-fashioned feel for the pace of a story, an inventiveness for scene-setting (almost completely wasted here on a seemingly endless string of overpriced Brooklyn restaurants, but presumably redeemable elsewhere), and a true – if at present slightly timid – sense of comic timing. Readers who somehow manage to bypass the blurbs and encounter this novel straight on will find an amiable tale of a young man, never in much danger of losing anything, who maybe gains in the end some things worth having.
And if that smacks of more than a little hipster anomie, well, that’s not Jane Austen’s problem. She didn’t ask to get blurbed into this, after all.