April 8, 2009

Book review: "The Slide," by Kyle Beachy

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

The Slide, by Kyle Beachy
The Slide
By Kyle Beachy
The Dial Press / ISBN: 978-0-385-34185-1

So before anything else, please understand that I was rooting from page one for Chicagoan Kyle Beachy's debut novel The Slide to be great; after all, the way I received a copy in the first place was by the author literally bicycling over to my freaking neighborhood a couple of weeks ago and hand-delivering it, after first confessing that he's already a daily reader of the CCLaP website. But this isn't the typical college-grad basement-press situation we're talking about, which is usually the case when an author in town will hand-deliver a book for possible review (which happens more often than you'd think, actually); Beachy is in fact the literary world's Next Big Hot New Thing™ , with this novel infamously turned down by 117 different literary agencies before finally finding a home at Random House (or technically one of their corporate subsidiaries, Dial Press), where it has gone on to become a surprise national hit and to inspire standing-room-only crowds at recent readings. But you know what that usually means -- dumbed-down unreadable crap, not to put too fine a point on it -- which of course is why I was rooting for it in the first place, not only because I like to think of CCLaP's readers as unusually smart and hate being proven wrong, but also because it's high time that Chicago had another bestselling author who isn't some cheapie-crime-novel genre hack.

And indeed, from an initial surface-level scan of the book, the news doesn't look good at first; The Slide has in fact been described by many as a coming-of-age novel featuring twee hipsters in their early twenties, and regular readers know that I have a real love/hate relationship with such stories that sometimes borders on hate/hate. Ultimately it's the tale of one Potter Mays, a typical slacker schlub from St. Louis (where I happen to have been born and raised too), back at his parents' place the summer after graduating from a small private liberal-arts college on the west coast. It seems that Potter's girlfriend Audrey has decided to tour Europe that summer with her bisexual, radical-feminist best friend; and as is typical with 22-year-old slacker schlubs in shaky relationships, this impending Continental trip has Potter freaked out pretty badly, and wondering whether their relationship is even going to survive such a head-shaving possibly lesbian holiday. And thus does he turn for advice to an old high-school friend named Stuart, a smartass overeducated trust-fund kid who has decided recently to start professionally offering his services as an "independent thought contractor;" and thus do the two talk out the details of the relationship throughout the summer by way of a series of impossibly witty hipster conversations, even while Potter goes through the ho-hum motions of finding a minimum-wage summer job, hanging out with his upper-middle-class politically-connected parents, and of course finding all kinds of new girl troubles despite his angst over the vacationing Audrey.

Yeah, I know, not exactly the most rousingly original idea for a debut novel by a recently graduated college student, and one can certainly be forgiven for blowing off The Slide based on these initial impressions. But despite the reliance at first on so many hackneyed first-novel tropes, the first thing one notices when actually reading it is how well-done it is anyway, and how almost from the first page Beachy starts cleverly playing with these conventions in subtle but ingenious ways. Because the fact is that this isn't really a coming-of-age novel, not in the way we typically define it, and has only picked up that reputation because of a series of lazy untalented critics arbitrarily assigning it that label, after quickly looking at the book and seeing that it's about a 22-year-old who thinks about his childhood a lot. But this book isn't about Potter coming to grips with his childhood, and it's not about him getting past his childhood so he can become an adult, the two most common themes of coming-of-age stories; it's mere coincidence that these characters happen to reside within the milieu that they do, with it possible to still get across most of the book's main points even if these people were all middle-aged and with kids.

And what are those main points? Well, it's complicated, a big part of why I ended up liking this book so much more than I was expecting. Because partly it's about personal responsibility, about the ability to look honestly at one's behavior and understand the ways one is being both a good and bad human being to the people around them; because the farther this book progresses, the more we start to realize that nearly every character on display has a hidden agenda, one that's fairly despicable precisely because they're not owning up to their own secret behavior. And then partly as well it's about the lies we all tell ourselves while pursuing these hidden agendas, the pretty little sagas we make up in our heads about our endlessly noble endeavors, and how these endeavors to an outsider rarely seem as noble as they seem in our own inner brains. And yes, I know, this is all coming out rather abstractly today, and a few specific examples from the book would help illustrate what I'm talking about; but part of what makes this book such a charmer is that it's chock-full of unexpected little surprises, ones that need to remain surprises in order to enjoy them to their full extent, and so I'm hesitant about mentioning any of them at all. There's a whole series of little things constantly happening to these characters that back up and solidify more and more all the things I'm talking about today; and I guess today's one of those days when you'll simply have to take my word for it.

And then there's this, which I haven't seen a single other book reviewer yet mention, an oversight so basic that it shocks me: that one of the biggest points of all with The Slide is simply to serve as a requiem for a dying American Midwest, and that the whole reason Beachy makes so many specific references to St. Louis landmarks is not to be a cutesy local hero but rather to show the rest of the planet exactly what's being lost out here these days, as more and more of these once-grand Industrial-Age meccas of the midwest (the St. Louises, the Detroits, the Kansas Citys) continue their downward spiral into abandoned ghost-town status (one of the many "slides" throughout the manuscript that this book's title metaphorically refers to). It's no coincidence at all that Potter's dad works for one of those ineffectual do-gooder "urban renaissance" organizations so popular these days among such dying midwestern cities; and it's no coincidence that he holds this job while actually living in a McMansion in the wealthy suburbs; and it's no coincidence that the organization is a pathetic joke, and that they can't seem to come up with any other ideas than to turn an endless series of abandoned warehouses into an endless series of pricey suburban-style "C&C" (condo and coffeehouse) developments. Beachy has something very specific to say about St. Louis by making all this such a heavy part of the storyline, something very specific to say when he references the great landmarks of St. Louis in such hyper-realistic detail; and as a fellow St. Louisan, I have to admit that this aspect of the novel really broke my heart, and I'm appalled that not a single other book critic in the entire United States has picked up on this, instead mistaking the entire thing for some kind of cheesy hometown shout-out.

But still, even with all this, even at the two-thirds mark of The Slide I had been prepared to give it an only slightly high score, because of there being just too many typical undergrad-English-major contemporary-postmodern-human-interest-novel stereotypes on display. "Oh, great," I found myself saying a lot throughout the first half of this book, "yet another college-educated white male pontificating in pretentiously mythic terms about baseball. Oh, and of course there's a whole magic-realism subplot about the ghost of his dead brother appearing in the attic at night to give him advice. Of course there is, of course of course there is." And this is always the biggest problem I have with literature by young people, and what always ends up sinking otherwise great first novels -- that the story just ends up being way too obvious, too easy to guess at when you're not even meaning to, even when the young author in question thinks that they're avoiding the typical cliches, serving up instead a whole series of secondary cliches because they're 22 and they don't know any better. And this isn't necessarily that bad -- a well-done obvious book is still a well-done book -- but it's also why debut novels by authors in their twenties rarely get great scores from me, and why they're rarely considered truly great novels by the public at large.

But then starting around page 200 of the 287-page American paperback version (and yes, those who have already read this, I'm referring exactly to the thing you think I'm referring to), something legitimately remarkable happens in The Slide -- Beachy veers off in a direction I truly and utterly wasn't expecting, but in a way that makes perfect sense with the 200 pages that came before, not a jarring transition done simply to shock but rather a logical turn of events that profoundly ties together all the themes Beachy has been working with. And that's what finally did it for me, what finally made me realize what a genuinely special piece of work this is; because without giving anything away, let's just say that the last hundred pages of this book is an unending exercise in unexpected revelation, combined with a kind of world-weary gravitas that even most veteran authors fail to achieve in their projects. And this is the entire point of storytelling, or at least it should be, to present us with tales that make perfect sense afterwards but that we would've never thought of ourselves, to present us with tales that make us understand ourselves better without realizing that we were going to have anything in common with the main characters to begin with.

And how even more remarkable that Beachy pulls this off using one of my favorite literary devices of all, making Potter by the end what I like to call an "anti-villain" (and by this I of course mean someone who seems pretty decent at first, but becomes kind of a douchebag by the end, even while we remain sympathetic to what turned them into a douchebag in the first place, pretty much the opposite of the more well-known term "anti-hero"). This is one of the greatest feats in modern literature in my opinion, and it's no coincidence that the books I've found truly amazing since opening CCLaP all tend to share this aspect; because this is an ingrained part of the modern storytelling process for most of us, to assume that our story's narrator is a decent person and that we should be rooting for them throughout. Without getting into specifics (and yes, the fuzzy nature of today's write-up is driving me a little crazy too), this traditional narrator/hero paradigm is completely subverted by Beachy by the end of The Slide, with it being really tempting to hate our old friend Potter by the time this story is over, and to see all the bad things that happen to him as a sort of divine retribution for his manytimes clueless dicklike behavior.

This is the mark of a sincerely spectacular book, when we can both love and loathe a character at the same time, precisely by being offered extremely well-done and unexpected scenes concerning them over and over and over, building by the end a total which is so much more than a mere sum of its parts. And that's why today The Slide becomes only the fourth book in CCLaP's history (and the first this year) to earn a perfect score of 10, and why in my opinion it wouldn't surprise me at all to see this get a dark-horse Pulitzer nomination come next year. It's one of those books that makes you feel all funny and sad and strange afterwards, one of those books that inspires cults among 23-year-olds (much like Douglas Coupland's Generation X did among me and my friends when we were all 23), and in fact I could write an entire second thousand-word essay just about all the fantastic elements I didn't get to talk about in this thousand-word essay (starting for example with what has to be one of the greatest minor characters in the entire contemporary literary canon, the hulking bearded emo-misogynist hipster monster Edsel). What a treat this book was, a truly unexpected treat, and what an astounding future Beachy has in store for himself as an artist. I recommend jumping on the bandwagon yourself as soon as possible.

Out of 10: 10

Read even more about The Slide: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:25 PM, April 8, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |