Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel
Debut coming-of-age novels can be a risky undertaking for the unwary reader... for every young author who totally nails the excruciating self-awareness, the blinding excitement, the innocence/ignorance lost, the survival-mode selfishness (I loved Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, for example), there are hundreds of others whose books can be a truly painful experience to get through. I usually steer clear, except upon recommendation from people/publications I respect.
That said, Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision seemed to have the goods: raves galore from reputable sources, a New York Times Notable Book seal of approval, a cute cover. And for the book's first 50 or so pages I was with Kunkel all the way, as he introduces us to Dwight B. Wilmerding: 28 years old, living on Chambers Street with three roommates, about to be outsourced from his crappy support-tech job at Pfizer, occasionally getting laid (without much effort or passion), totally lost in life. I liked Kunkel's sharp eye and clever sentences, and thought Dwight's relationship with his sister Alice was especially sweet. "Poor mom!" runs a typical passage, "I always wanted her to have some other, better kid. But I wasn't willing to become that kid myself or capable of convincing Alice that she should do it. Alice was an excellent student who didn't, however, get very high marks in the attitude department, whereas my geniality, while genial enough in itself, was also pretty transparently an attempt to ingratiate myself with my parents who would otherwise punish me for the underexploitation of my alleged mental resources."
Nothing brilliant, certainly, but diverting and likable enough.
For a little while.
Then Dwight, on the slimmest of contrivances, goes to Ecuador, and the novel never really recovers. Dwight becomes more jerky (the hammock masturbation scene is a low point), his benign bobbing-through-life bit more frustrating. A romance with a Belgian women has zero chemistry. Lengthy, back-to-back tripping-on-drugs scenes are as boring as... well, as boring as watching someone trip for 35 pages. A flashback to 9/11 attempts to inject some pathos that is totally unearned. A native Ecuadorian Indian jungle guide enters and disappears at the author's convenience. And the surprise ending is ludicrous. I did finish Indecision, which is something, but I admit I skimmed through the last bits, eager to done with Dwight. Kunkel definitely has talent, and his next book is worth watching out for, but maybe he'd do better with light non-fiction.