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By Josh Fruhlinger
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Up to very recently, Josh Fruhlinger was only known as the creator of a funny but throwaway blog called "The Comics Curmudgeon," in which each day he makes snide jokes about the kinds of "legacy" newspaper comic strips that can only be loved by a half-senile grandparent; so last year when he started a Kickstarter campaign to finance his debut novel, The Enthusiast, there wasn't much reason to believe that the book would be anything other than a noble but probably only so-so vanity project. (DISCLOSURE: Although I don't know Fruhlinger personally, I was one of the contributors to that Kickstarter campaign, which is how I secured my review copy of this book.)
Imagine my surprise, then, when I sat down and read The Enthusiast over Christmas vacation, and realized that it is in fact one of the best novels I've read in the last few years, a book that could've easily gotten picked up by a mainstream press like Random House which makes its self-published status even more remarkable. At its heart it's the kind of witty, smart, almost science-fictiony look at contemporary corporate culture that also marks Douglas Coupland's writing at its best -- the story of a woman who works for a secretive PR firm whose job is not to create promotional campaigns for their clients, not even to create guerrilla marketing campaigns, but literally to "build enthusiasm" for their clients' products among the back alleys of forgotten website forums and inner-city warehouse parties, so that these strange fanboy screeds on the edges of the internet are then picked up by jaded hipster sites like Gawker, which only then bubbles up into the world of Twitter and Facebook and then the New York Times.
Our hero Kate works on two different campaigns over the course of the book -- convincing amateur trainspotters to talk in positive terms about a new rapid-transit prototype for the Washington DC Metro being provided by German company Siemens, literally by doing things like convincing them to illegally break into the trainyard one night to see the prototype in action; and a "testing the waters" campaign for the exact kind of tired old legacy comic strip that Fruhlinger writes about in real life (quite obviously based on the actual comic strip "Apartment 3-G" which Fruhlinger has publicly declared an obsessive fascination with in the past), one which has picked up an ironic young audience in recent years as its actual quality has become worse and worse, and which has recently attracted the attention of a James-Franco-type actor who is thinking of making a Postmodernist movie adaptation as a personal starring vehicle. (See, its young ironic fans have noticed that the octogenarian currently drawing the strip happens to draw every single male character so that he vaguely looks like James Franco; and Franco is now thinking of making a movie version where he plays every single male part via CGI scene-splitting, and has hired our secretive PR firm to see whether enough enthusiasm could be generated for the idea among these ironic web-forum fans to convince a movie studio to greenlight the project.)
To divulge any more of the airtight plot would be a shame, because it's the various surprising twists and turns that makes this book so enjoyable; but needless to say that Fruhlinger does a shockingly remarkable job at it all, penning a story that is by turns creepily analytical and heartwarmingly relatable, ping-ponging between the high-functioning sociopaths behind such secret PR campaigns and the Cheetos-scarfing fanboys who are being manipulated, the bottom-line Hollywood executives who just want to sell more hamburgers, and the elderly Mid-Century Modernist creators of these projects who resent the Gen-X hipster detachment that has been latched onto their creative babies. A novel that creates 50 years of a complex and very believable history to this crappy comic strip, including example strips from its heyday actually drawn and inserted into the book by Don Sparrow, The Enthusiast blew me away with its deft handling of so many different balls it keeps in the air; and I'm more surprised than anyone else to declare it a nearly perfect novel, a grand-slam home run from Fruhlinger's very first turn at bat. It comes very highly recommended to one and all, and is a strong contender even at this early date to make CCLaP's 2016 best-of list way off in another eleven months from now.
Out of 10: 9.9