Grunge in the Burbs
June 16, 2013
Conquistador of the Useless, the first novel by Joshua Isard, teems with references to bands I’ve never heard of. The book is also way too cool to use quotation marks around dialogue. All this should annoy me, but I enjoyed the tale anyway.
The story is told in the first person by Nathan Wavelsky, an early-thirties guy with a boring desk job, a nice wife, Lisa, a new home in the suburbs and a passion for grunge and pre-grunge bands that speak to his alienation. How does a grunge couple end up in the burbs? Well, they left the hip inner city because they got tired of the noise and the hipsters’ pretense. Of course, Nathan doesn’t like the pretense of the suburbs either; he’s immediately snarky about the new neighbors who invite them for dinner:
So, Kristy [the neighbor wife], says, how long have you been married?
Four years, Lisa answers.
That’s wonderful, Kristy says, we’ve been married almost eight years now.
She says it like they’d beaten us at some contest.
That’s typical of Nathan’s sarcasm. There aren’t many people he cares for. What he does like is drinking tea in the tree-shaded quiet of his backyard, bothered by no one. He also loves listening to his music, reading his books. He has no ambitions and doesn’t see the need to develop any. Isard sets him up, in fact, as a prototype of his generation. Here’s Nathan describing himself and Lisa during and after college:
Neither of us were National Merit Scholars or Phi Beta Kappa members—we always studied, but refused to end up in the college’s counseling office because we had anxiety attacks over a B.
This is also the way we treated our jobs. We worked hard in the office, but tried not to think about it when we got home.
It wasn’t that we didn’t aspire to a promotion, it’s that we didn’t aspire to anything. We were the kids who heard their public school teachers tell them that they could be anything, even President of the United States; whose parents insisted that we would be the generation to change the world; who grew up in the age where everyone’s special.
Then we looked at the politicians, our teachers, our peers.
And we said, Horseshit.
And we were happy.
With Nathan thus coasting through life, Isard tosses him some trouble. Nathan’s best friend, who has become a rich adventurer, breezes into town and invites him to climb Mt. Everest. The thought intrigues Nathan because he has always liked climbing mountains (though he has no experience on difficult ones) and because he’s drawn to experiences that are “wonderful and useless.” But a trip to Everest, with the real possibility that he might freeze to death there, conflicts with Lisa’s sudden interest in beginning a family. Nathan finally grasps Lisa’s seriousness about nesting when she starts painting the house by herself and buying new furniture:
We’ve been here for five months, Nathan, and until today we had a hobo’s table next to our couch, a bedroom that makes a summer camp cabin look ritzy, and no plan for any of it. We’ve got a stove, a dishwasher, and a washer/dryer that came with the place because the last owners didn’t want them anymore.
Yeah, I say, but those things still work fine.
Who gives a shit if they work, she says, they’re not fucking ours.
It is, at this moment, that I realize the full gravity of the situation.
Nathan also gets into trouble by lending Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle to a teenage neighbor girl, Rayanne, a cultural faux-pas worsened by his indifference to propriety. He is shunned by the adult neighbors, who assume he’s been corrupting minors, and again Lisa is not amused:
What kind of relationship do you have with Rayanne?
The kind where I lend her books and music.
And where you think about how hot she’s going to be.
Oh come on—
Is it also the kind where you invite her into our house when I’m not home?
Yeah, I say, to give her a book.
You didn’t tell me that part of the story, she says, you didn’t tell me she came in here with you. How do you think that looks?
I don’t know, I say, polite?
The humor, as should be evident by now, keeps Nathan amusing even when his unwillingness to be impressed with life becomes profoundly unimpressive. Yet, since this is a Serious Novel, Nathan does at last experience Personal Growth—and though I’m capitalizing these concepts to poke fun at them as Nathan himself might, the end is genuinely moving as well as unexpected.
It’s a good read even if you’ve never heard of Pixies, Green Day, Social Distortion, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, or Jane’s Addiction. Even better, I guess, if you have.