Volume 20 Issue 4 | June 8 - 14, 2007


The debut artists

Summer reads by first-time novelists

By Orli Van Mourik

The Catastrophist
By Lawrence Douglas
(Harvest Books; $14)

Much has been written about the fertility troubles visited on middle-class women so distracted by their jobs, gym memberships, and Crate and Barrel catalogues, they wake up at 38 and realize it may be too late to have kids. Surprisingly little has been written about the men who wake up next to them and suddenly find themselves servants of their wives’ unforgiving biological clocks. “The Catastrophist” is a book about the feeling of sheer panic that comes when a man realizes he’s about to exchange the things that make life livable (sleep, sex, and booze) for a list of things that sounds downright awful (3:00 am feedings, diaper rash, and Gymboree) — all in service of a human being who promises to be expensive and ungrateful.

When confronted with the news that he’s about to become a father, Daniel Wellington, a happily married art historian with a nice house and a tenure-track position, has an anxiety attack so severe he can think of nothing better to do than stand up, walk outside, and gnaw on a tree. “It smelled like a closet, a comforting odor of neatly stacked sweaters and folded blankets,” he informs us. The harder Daniel struggles to be the man he thought he was — upstanding, loyal, dependable — the more unhinged he becomes. As the book progresses, the terror of fatherhood transforms him from a devoted husband, to a two-timing, pathological liar who somehow still can’t manage to get laid.

For those readers staring down the barrel of fatherhood, Lawrence Douglas’ morbidly funny novel will read like “How-Not-To” manual. For the rest of us, it provides an uncomfortable and highly entertaining cautionary tale.

Radiant Days
By Michael Fitzgerald
(Shoemaker and Hoard; $15)

“There is nothing for Americans to do, to feel. No history. No faith. No struggle . . . We have no causes. Could you imagine being a hippie or protesting things? Even if I hate everything, it’s all just so nice. So easy. I have no choice but to be happy,” says a terminally bored ex-patriot in Michael Fitzgerald’s novel “Radiant Days.” So what’s a young American lacking a mission to do? Leave the country and join other people’s battles!

After a brutal break up, Anthony Sinclair, a twentysomething of undetermined aspirations and amorphous principles, decides he’s done suckling at the teat of San Francisco’s tech giants. In search of adventure (and lacking anything better to do) he opts to follow Gisela, a hot Hungarian immigrant he meets at his local pub, on an expedition back to her homeland. This is the first in a long-line of bad decisions, which ultimately lead Anthony to Croatia where he serves as a hapless witness to the final throes of the Balkan War.

Some readers may find the premise of “Radiant Days” implausible, but that’s only because they didn’t spend the late ’90s watching hordes of over-educated, under-whelmed dot-comers flee their cushy lives in Silicon Valley to build wells in Angola. Fitzgerald does a brilliant job of capturing the aimless moral hunger of this generation of spoiled malcontents. You may not always find his characters likeable, but they are believable, and what the story lacks in momentum is balanced out by moments of beautifully lucid writing.

Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him
By Danielle Ganek
(Viking Adult; $23.95)

When an obscure painter is mowed down outside his opening, the art addicts and social schemers of New York’s art world scramble to get their hands on his most valuable painting, the clunkily-entitled “Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him.” Watching from the wings is Mia, the apathetic “gallery girl” responsible for manning the desk and soothing the perpetually ruffled feathers of the scene’s would-be taste makers.

Mia narrates the tale from her perch in the nosebleed section of Manhattan society with an odd combination of detachment and envy, off-handedly noting the insanity, excess, and unrepentant narcissism that fuels the art trade, while leaving the reader with the impression that she’d gladly join in if she could. Sadly, she informs us she is neither pretty enough nor gifted enough to make the grade, and spends the bulk of the book traipsing after the late artist’s niece, Lulu, the preternaturally pretty Wall Street maven who inspired the title work.

Lulu’s story unfolds predictably. Her beauty and family connections make her an instant celebrity among New York’s art elite. She attends all the right parties, charms all the right people, and soon trades in her buttoned-up existence for life as a bohemian art ingénue. After spending the entire book shadowing Lulu, Mia is rewarded with a love affair that gives her the confidence to quit her job and write a half-hearted exposé of the opportunistic art world.

Given that the novelist behind “Lulu Meets God” is a fully credentialed art insider herself, it’s hard not to assume Mia’s feelings mirror her own.

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