[13 March 2014]
There are few things in life more intimidating yet exciting than becoming a new parent. After all, it completely changes our reality, filling us with the most overwhelming and diverse range of feelings we’ll likely ever internalize. In his sophomore novel, Kids These Days, North Carolina author Drew Perry (This Is Just Exactly Like You) explores this emotional spectrum with an enjoyable mixture of humor, honesty, drama, and absurdity. Unfortunately, though, it amounts to a fairly empty experience overall.
In his brief essay about what inspired the novel, Perry bluntly confesses, “Mine was the losing argument. She wanted kids. I didn’t. Or I did, but I wanted them in some far-off land, some other time… I liked my life. I was comfortable. I didn’t need any trouble. Also, I was terrified.” Clearly, this is a reaction many other parents have (or should I say, hide?), and it provides the perfect connection between the author and his fictional protagonist/counterpart, Walter (a man who more or less feels the exact same way).
Perry goes on to explain how he expanded upon this fear by returning to it even after his son was born, as well as how he developed the characters and plot. He concludes his essay by stating what he hopes Kids These Days will do for its reader: “It’s fundamentally, immutably difficult to be in the world. It’s harder still… to be half-responsible for bringing someone else into it. That… is what I hope Kids These Days is chasing.” Although Perry doesn’t succeed as well as he could have in several ways, his second effort does capture well the mindset of an unprepared father who lives in constant conflict with himself (as well as his expecting wife).
As for its plot, Kids These Days revolves around secretive criminal exploits, betrayed family members, and sunny Florida relaxation. Walter starts his narrative by echoing the aforementioned sentiments before adding that he and his wife, Alice, decided to move into a condo in Florida after he lost his job. Basically, they wanted to start fresh before the baby was born. From there, we follow Walter as he becomes entangled in the betrayal and criminal activity of his brother-in-law, Mid.
Meanwhile, Alice comforts her sister (and Mid’s wife), Carolyn, as well as Carolyn’s children of various ages (all of whom serve as practice for Walter and Alice’s future as parents). Without giving too much more away, several relationships become strained as Mid’s exploits become more elaborate and damaging (and Walter’s hesitation about fatherhood becomes more transparent). By the end, things become quite hectic, but Perry ultimately concludes with a nice moment of serenity and understanding.
Kids These Days does many things right, not the least of which is entertain its readers. I don’t think I’ve ever finished a book this quickly, which is saying something considering how busy I am on any given day. There’s just something relaxing and enjoyable about these characters and situations; I couldn’t wait to see how things would progress.
The settings are also described very well, with plenty of attention to details such as lightening, temperature, textures, and peculiar sights. Walter often walks on the beach by the condo or drinks coffee on his balcony, and readers can feel themselves in the environment with him, taking in the sun and cool breeze (or nighttime stillness, as the case may be). Likewise, Perry describes the action with equal vigor (which I’d be happy to exemplify if not for the risk of spoiling something).
In addition, Walter usually phrases his thoughts with surprising insight and universality; for example, he and Mid go to a party with Mid’s oldest daughter, Olivia (who calls herself Delton), and he reflects:
She was two months away from sixteen—two months from the open road and the endless dream of a better tomorrow… And as for me? I was twenty-some weeks away from my daughter’s arrival… What I wanted to do was… ask Delton to jot down, longhand, everything she knew: Should we make the BOJ [bundle of joy] take piano lessons? Gymnastics? When does a kid go to sleepover camp for the first time? Just write it all down, please… Write down everything I’m going to need to know.
For all of its positive attributes, Kids These Days also has some issues. For one, it’s longer than it needs to be, which is to say that the story isn’t detailed or have enough impact to warrant its length (just over 300 pages). Perry definitely could have condensed this tory into perhaps three-fifths of its length (or simply added more plot and weight to make each chapter rewarding and vital). There are many instances in which characters spend too much time in insignificant (or just overly long) discussions or situations, so things don’t develop as quickly or as much as they should.
Along the same lines, characters confront each other several times about the same problems, which get old quickly. How many times can we watch Carolyn yell at Mid or Mid lie to Walter? Nowhere is this redundancy more apparent than in the many exchanges Walter and Alice have about their pregnancy. There are at least a dozen exchanges in Kids These Days that mirror the following exchange:
“I don’t always, always want it,” Alice said. “You know that, right?”
“The baby?” I said
“Catherine of Aragon. Whatever you’re calling her. I’m not always a hundred percent behind it.”
“ I get it,” I said
“No, you don’t. You think I’m some cheerleader who wants four hundred kids.”
I said, “Did I do something?”
“I know it’s supposed to be me. I know I’m supposed to be in charge. It’s just hard. It turns out having her actually here is hard.”
“Why do you have to be in charge?”
“Well, it’s not going to be you, is it?”
“That’s not fair,” I said.
“I still want it. I completely still want it. But then sometimes I kind of don’t. Some days.”
The conflict doesn’t feel resolved enough at the end, either. We’re never quite sure what exactly Mid did (or how much he knew about his situation), nor do we know why Walter stuck with him. Everything comes to a head in one quick moment that ends too easily and doesn’t have much of an aftermath. This is partially due to the fact that none of the characters feel real enough to care about, and none of them seem to change much by the end, either, so their entire journey feels a bit pointless. In fact, two of the characters—Delton’s boyfriend, Nic, and Hank the parachutist—have almost no reason to exist.
Despite its numerous shortcomings, Kids These Days is not a regrettable read; it’s just not very memorable or consequential, either. Perry’s depictions are amusing and involving enough on the surface, but there’s not much else to it. Mid’s criminal antics feel more like something from a sitcom than anything else, and Walter’s constant cognitive dissonance becomes frustrating and repetitive by the end. All in all, the novel is a good read while it lasts, but it doesn’t have any staying power.