The Temptations of Realism
Edward Falco digs a hole for himself in the opening section of his new novel, Saint John of the Five Boroughs. Like many American writers of the past 30 years, Falco endeavors to accurately portray the TMZ-obsessed world of pop culture so that he can liberate his protagonist, Avery Walker, from it—it, in this case, being also the vacuous party scene of a massive state university where football players are celebrities, bitchy roommates want the scoop on the night’s hook-ups, and alcoholic, hipster losers wear T-shirts that read “Kill Me” on their chests like targets.
To establish this world by the narrative force of fiction, Falco has to drag us through its OMG-moments vividly and over some length of time. But vividness alone doesn’t guarantee engrossment, and soon the reader is happy to oblige that T-shirt’s command.
Taking shots at the shallowness of campus culture is, of course, a slam-dunk, which is the point: after she sleeps with a star of the football team and the novel’s brooding anti-hero, a visiting performance artist from Brooklyn (‘natch), on the very same night, Avery becomes disgusted by the narrow-mindedness of her peers and hops on a hog for Brooklyn with the anti-hero stranger, Grant Danko. Having suffered through her roommates’ conversations, we can’t help but root Avery on her way. But even if Avery is at least self-aware enough to know that, like her Penn State peers, “her beliefs [are] formed more from Fraiser and ER than religion and philosophy,” she still remains a character whose beliefs have indeed been formed by Frasier and ER instead of religion and philosophy.
Accurate? Perhaps, but again, accuracy doesn’t guarantee the reader’s interest. There are two ways we can still be intrigued: to be convinced of the worthwhile religion and philosophy within pop culture (the DeLillo Method), or to understand, as readers, that Avery is wrong about herself. Otherwise we’ll be asked to wade through another 300 pages of a self-discovery akin to filling an empty swimming pool. A dicey proposition, and one Falco’s novel anticipates.
Avery’s flight to Brooklyn with Grant sets the rest of the novel’s plot into motion. Avery’s mother, a lonely widower who finds no comfort in her friends, either, seeks out her wayward daughter. Kate is aided in this quest by her brother-in-law Hank and his young wife, Lindsey. The catch? Hank has been sleeping with Kate, rather stoically. Meanwhile Avery is neatly taken under the wing of Grant’s successful creative friends, including Mei Mei, a “world-renowned” visual artist, even though we’re told they’re a tight-knit bunch to the point of snobby exclusivity. Avery’s middling success threatens Grant, a failed writer and apparently not much of a performance artist, and, seeking stability and money, he turns to his uncle, a Mafioso.
If it sounds a bit soap-operatic, it is, but in Falco’s hands, at least the adults’ contradictions are convincing: Kate hypocritically chastises her friend for sexing up a recently-separated parishioner; Hank loves his wife, but cares for Kate like the extended family she is; Lindsey, possibly the novel’s most interesting character, dotes on her Alzheimer’s-afflicted father and her young son despite her regrets, nascent alcoholism, and the sudden grief caused by the death of her brother, Ronnie, in Iraq. Their lives are complicated enough to have contradictions; we have a sense of when they are skimming their own surfaces, diving to the murky bottoms of their psyches, and are most pleased when they are aware of the fathoms between.
That each of the ‘adults’ has his or her own narration seems like a safety net lest we become bored or turned off by the points of view of Avery or Grant. A shrewd tactic, if we weren’t so aware of it. This is another dilemma of postmodern realism in fiction: the culture which insists that everything is important saturates the form of the novel itself—its tactics, its structure, its writing at the sentence level—and the result is a too-liberal use of point of view, a many-tentacled plot, and overwhelming detail which impresses and entertains only if you don’t question its importance. (And we’re not talking about maximalist style; Falco hasn’t tried to write Underworld.)
The novel lacks depth of field and the reader’s ‘eye’ doesn’t know quite where to look. Hence, in Saint John of the Five Boroughs, an accurately realistic but unimportant conversation between Kate, Hank, and Lindsey about hotel prices in New York drags on without any subtext. For the same reason, Avery is able to be enamored of the ‘complexity’ of Grant, who seems only cluttered. Bits of plot and character get lost in the wash, like Avery’s feelings about her deceased father, or Lindsey’s problem drinking, or the rushed resolution to Hank and Kate’s affair.
If Falco’s authorial eye sees too indiscriminately, the panorama is at least lively, especially once the novel settles into Manhattan and Brooklyn. For Avery the city is predictably new, entirely about possibilities, while her mother sees only its threats and Grant and his cohorts are comfortably ambivalent to the city’s hustle and sprawl. In one memorable scene, however, Lindsey confronts Times Square post-Disney, circa-Bush, and the billboards urge her toward a desire to desire.
Falco’s writing is at its most relaxed in Lindsey’s point of view. Soon she confronts a pair of war protestors dressed as Bush and Cheney, and the novel feels deliriously up-for-grabs. But as she’s about to chase them down, a police officer steps in her way, as if the novel must intercede to keep Lindsey on track.
The promise made by the uniquely American brand of hyper-rich, dizzying realism is that anything can happen, and yet in Saint John of the Five Boroughs, characters stay too true to their programming. Experiments never become more than dalliances, and even the more surprising moments—a decision to uproot, a suicide attempt, a sexual foray with Mei Mei—never threaten the novel’s course.
In moments of conflict, when speech between lovers naturally becomes more obscure and frenzied—when a slip of the tongue can have disastrous results—Falco’s characters say exactly what they’re thinking in a too-realistic artlessness. “You’re behaving like a coward,” Kate tells Hank in New York as their affair continues to disintegrate, “and Lindsey is behaving like a fool.” Hank responds that Kate is being “way over the top. Keep in mind you’re stressed too.” In this tumultuous moment, Kate replies like she’s in debate club, “I’m stressed but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. I’m sorry for talking to you like this, but it’s crazy, Hank.” Unfortunately it feels anything but crazy. No one has the bad manners to even interrupt each other.
The one character who promises the most chaos may be the novel’s most staid and least likable. For a 37-year-old performance artist who used to call himself Saint John of the Five Boroughs and who lives in the hub of all-things-cultural (or so we’re told, again and again), Grant Danko is surprisingly naïve and unimaginative. Like most of the novel’s characters, he’s wed to a traumatic past, but his only plan is to work his way into his uncle’s business, hoping to climb from the runner job that almost got him killed to some vague position of power that will almost certainly get him killed.
Uncle Billy laughs in his face. Getting schooled by his uncle and his uncle’s lieutenant, Albert, are Grant’s most entertaining scenes; his relationship with Avery is dull, his jealousy borders on paranoia, and his work, entirely in his past, not particularly groundbreaking. Submerged in thought, he offers pedestrian observations like “Time was so fucking weird, the way it went slow and fast simultaneously.”
Not until late in Saint John of the Five Boroughs do we discover which Saint John Grant and his author have in mind. Fittingly, for a novel filled with people searching for their identities, Saint John of Patmos is a contentious, vague figure in history who competes with John the Apostle and John the Presbyter for the dubious distinction of writing the Book of Revelations. Like his namesake in Falco’s novel, his character is less interesting than the context in which he lived and the greater story he serves.
Grant Danko and the other characters in Saint John of the Five Boroughs may adequately represent the lives of people living in these schizophrenic-yet-bored times, but they never do more than represent. That is the danger of realism in fiction: the portrait is true, but rarely affecting as a story.