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By Adam Wilson. Harper Perennial, $15.
Way back when (circa mid-1980s, e.g., The Breakfast Club), being a "loser" meant growing up on the wrong side of the tracks and exuding that salty rebel persona particular to the era's sneering malcontents. Today's brand of slacker hero, as exemplified by Adam Wilson's protagonist Eli Schwartz, fits the traditional mold while enjoying a comfy upper-middle-class safety net.
In Wilson's debut novel, Flatscreen, the biggest act of youthful rebellion from this rich poor man's Judd Nelson is his exploration of the sartorial possibilities of the common bathrobe. He wants for nothing (save to get laid); lives in the shadow of his older brother, Benjy; and supports his recreational drug habit with a regular stipend from his remarried father. Nice work if you can get it, but when Eli's mother sells their home to a disabled former D-list television star named Kahn, the thin walls of distraction that surround Eli begin to crumble, and he must face the reality of his wastrel's existence.
The directionless young man's coming of age is well-trod ground, littered with the detritus of J.D. Salinger and John Hughes, and it would be easy for the book to fall into droll caricature. Instead, Wilson gives us something depressingly hilarious and undeniably real. Comparing himself unfavorably to Kurt Cobain, Eli notes that though he lacks the courage to kill himself he still wants release: "Mainly rest from the interminable noise of vacuums and treadmills." Low-level angst is still angst, and Wilson captures it perfectly.