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The Average American Marriage
By Chad Kultgen
Reviewed by Yair Ben-Zvi
I've been following Chad Kultgen for some years now. He's one of the few authors of whom I can say I've read every one of his books. I remember reading The Average American Male on break and after work when I was working at the UCLA student store. I remember reading it in two sittings and laughing, actually laughing, which is a hard thing for a book to make me do and yet still take it seriously, which I certainly did for this one. I didn't buy it (sorry Chad) but I did buy his next book The Lie and enjoyed it (though not quite as much as its predecessor as it seemed to let go of some of the comedy in lieu of some Bret Easton Ellis style collegiate emptiness).
I bought and read his next book Men, Women and Children just before I went off to live abroad for a year and change. It was good, very good. The book, not the year. To me it was what The Lie could have been if it had just been played out and developed a bit more.
And now here we are at the sequel to his first novel: The Average American Marriage. And again, I laughed my ass off while still taking it what it had to say seriously. The nameless protagonist from the first novel has returned having been married for a few years to the once hot and now quite frigid woman he left his old girlfriend for. He is, more or less, where he was at years before. He masturbates in secret, attempts sex with a, now, wife who couldn't be less interested. Has two kids that he appears to be a surprisingly good father to. He works at a job that doesn't seem to fulfill him in any way other than financial. And, as Vonnegut once said, so it goes. Or rather, so it went, until (spoiler) he hires a beautiful college intern.
The actual progression of the story is fairly standard (spoilers, last warning). Nameless man cheats and cheats quite severely with Holly the intern and destroys his marriage. Eventually he kicks Holly to the curb and begins the slow process of reconciling himself not only to his wife but his life within the modern incarnation of American marriage.
What Kultgen is a master of here is voice and the depiction of feeling. What a man goes through as he contemplates ruining his marriage for a quick but reinvigorating fling. He doesn't just paint his female characters as negatives, his wife is unattractive and the intern is attractive so there it's justified. Rather, Kultgen depicts the drudgery and the slow and miserable process of physical desire denied and denied again under the strain of a marriage well into, I believe, its half decade mark, and shows the fountain of life, of the reawakening inherent in really good, really passionate sex.
But where Kultgen sort of slips is the mistaking of pleasure for happiness, as Roger Ebert stated reviewing Todd Solondz's film Happiness. Though anything but a psychologist I can see a lack when it's this ever-present. The characters here, up to and including the protagonist, don't seem to be happy. And that makes sense. Happiness is, while maybe not the most complex thing, something nonetheless earned, which in this modern America of quick fixes, instant gratification, and turning away from the more than the instantly attainable, something incredibly elusive.
And the characters seem to cobble together something resembling but not not actually happiness. Facebook, video games, parties, drugs, all the standards new and old, of ritual and instant gratification are here. It's a heavy handed satire that makes modern life less than attractive but at the same time bracing in its honesty.
Most people, especially after some of Kultgen's previous works, may accuse him of misogyny or, at the very least, favoring the males of his cast over the females. And, well, he does. But that doesn't mean the women are whores and mothers and the males dashing rouges chained down by their insanity. Everyone is brought down here by the doldrums of modern life. And if the men are depicted in a more sympathetic light it's only because, so I read it, of something akin to what was found in Fight Club (film and novel) that men have been so thoroughly emasculated and even destroyed a bit by the increasingly rapid progress of the modern world that their lack is just more obvious than that of the women.
What's left from all this? Night darkest before the dawn? No, not quite. As the protagonist points out at a certain juncture in the book, America is not in the best of straits. But the night isn't all black. The fact that the protagonist is able to be a (mostly) good father to his kids and a.) appreciate the sexual power of a woman while b.) return (grudgingly) to his imperfect but loving (on her side it would seem also grudgingly) wife, says that while people may not always, or even ever live up to what they're truly capable, there are certain near absolute goods that we as people can still wander our way towards if we just keep ourselves open to them...sometimes.
Anyway, it's a good book, hilarious, and the humor goes hand in expert hand with the acidic critique of the modern American life.
Out of 10: 8.9