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By Pamela Erens
Tin House Books
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
(*Please note that I read and reviewed this under the impression that it's a brand-new book, when in fact I was just reading the brand-new second edition; it was originally published in 2007, with this new edition being published as a promotional tie-in with Erens' newest novel, Eleven Hours, which we will also be reviewing later this year.)
Usually, quiet novels about intellectual introverts are a real hit-and-miss proposition for me; but I have to say that I really loved Pamela Erens' take on the subject, the beautifully done The Understory, mainly because she looks at such a person from an outsider's perspective and presents him as a sort of broken human we should avoid trying to be, instead of the "Proust-reading hero battling a world of morons" that so many of these other books present such characters. A slim novel that's just as much about Manhattan as it is about the people being discussed, and especially those overlooked corners of Manhattan that make it such a friendly city for intellectual introverts (the dusty used bookstores, the forgotten '50s diners, the rundown rent-controlled apartments that millions walk by each day without ever giving a second thought), this is the world our OCD narrator Jack inhabits almost exclusively, a man with a minute-by-minute daily schedule that hasn't changed in years (as a great example, it takes him nearly a month to accept the idea of the subway system moving from tokens to fare cards), whose life is thrown into utter turmoil when the building where he's been illegally living for a pittance (taking over a dead uncle's apartment without ever resigning the lease himself) is sold to a developer who wants to gut it and turn it into high-end condos. It's an unbelievably sad and deep character study, of a man who does things like casually realize his birthday was the previous week and that he had completely forgotten to acknowledge it, a man who has his photo taken by a "People of New York" type photographer and can literally not recognize his own face when looking at it; and it's a devastating look at the types of aggressively antisocial people who inhabit big cities in the millions around the world, all the more powerful for being written in such a subtle, poetic way. It will absolutely not be everyone's cup of tea, which is why it's getting only a so-so general score; but it's a must-read for anyone who enjoys delicately written character studies of the kinds of people generally overlooked by history at large, and it comes strongly recommended today specifically to those types of readers.
Out of 10: 8.8, or 9.8 for fans of quiet and poetic character studies