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Two new novels illustrate just how hard it is to find a foothold in America

Riverhead Books

Many years ago, I got an email from a woman who'd been in graduate school with me. She'd read something I'd written about that experience and wanted me to know that she, too, had felt like a working-class interloper in the halls of the Ivy League. In fact, she told me that to augment their graduate student stipends, she and her then-husband delivered newspapers before dawn every day to make ends meet.

I thought of that classmate's hidden life all the while I was reading two powerfully disconcerting novels about making it — or not — in America.

Brandon Taylor's, The Late Americans, contains a sprawling cast of mostly gay characters, many of them of color. Almost all are grad students at the University of Iowa, where Taylor himself attended the Iowa Writers Workshop. Many of these characters are living double lives: they may be rich in cultural superiority, but they're unlikely to profit from that advantage.

Take Noah, for instance, who's in the dance program at the university and who films homemade porn videos to support himself. His friend, Ivan, a former dancer now an MBA student, reluctantly begins making porn videos, too, because his future in finance lies in New York and he needs big bucks for an apartment. The novel opens on a day in the life of one of its most vivid characters: a fed-up MFA student named Seamus who's suffering through a weekly poetry workshop. Taylor, through Seamus, clearly revels in satirizing the overblown language of the seminar room: Seamus says to himself that trendy terms like: "Witness and legacy of violence and valid ... made poetry seminar feel less like a rigorous intellectual and creative exercise and more like a tribunal for war crimes."

Seamus supplements his meagre funds by working as a cook in a nearby hospital kitchen. Hospital kitchens, he tells us, "were always hiring . ... [They] were home to junkies, ex-cons, and old women — people who could never afford the hospitals where they worked." Given that he prides himself on being more a man of the people than his elite classmates, it's a punch in the gut for Seamus to overhear two coworkers complain that "he swear he know everything" and then teasingly call him "boss man" to his face.

The Late Americans is a smart, sexually-explicit and cynical novel about young people striving or, sometimes "just" surviving, but don't look for a big take-away about the American Dream in Taylor's deliberately fragmented storyline. His characters are so beyond embracing that age-old American ideal of social mobility.

In Andre Dubus III's new novel, Such Kindness, all that his main character, Tom Lowe, is striving for is a temporary respite from chronic pain. Tom is a 50-something white guy, once a builder, once proud of the work of his hands, like the beautiful house he constructed for his family. Then came the fall off a roof that broke Tom's back and hip. The bank foreclosed on his property, his marriage fell apart, and he became addicted to opioids. Now, six years after he kicked that addiction, Tom lives alone in subsidized housing and cultivates resentments. He calls his ex-wife, who's happily remarried to a lawyer, "an abundist" — a word he "made up, meaning one accustomed to abundance."

"If someone's raised in abundance," Tom thinks to himself, "then that person is raised with partial vision ..." Probably true, but it's the widening of Tom's own vision that this odd and affirmative novel dramatizes.

Tom hatches a plan to commit credit card "convenience check" fraud to steal the money to visit his estranged son who's turning 21. When that scheme predictably goes haywire, Tom is propelled on a journey modeled explicitly on the hero's wanderings in Herman Hesse's novel, Siddhartha. Making his way toward his son, a hungry, stripped-down Tom must accept charity from strangers and divest himself of the bitter internal narratives that have kept him isolated on his couch for years.

In Such Kindness, Dubus pulls off the near-impossible: he writes convincingly and, for the most part, unsentimentally, about a man resurrecting himself from the dead. It's safe to say that Brandon Taylor's fictional MFA students would roll their eyes at this old-fashioned tale of the erosion of masculine independence and the epiphany that renews Tom's hopes. But, despite their differences in tone and form, these two novels share a charged undercurrent of fear about how easy it is to slip out of one's foothold in America and how very hard it can be to find that foothold in the first place.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.