[2 April 2003]
“Youth is a blunder; manhood a struggle; old age a regret.”
Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby
Reading the novel Important Things That Don’t Matter by David Amsden made me miss my brother John, who’s been dead since 1975. The plot is filled with what doesn’t matter when you’re 35 but is of fundamental importance when you’re 15. However, when you truly think back, you realize, maybe some of it does matter now that you’re all grown up.
Like with my conversations with John. We had not-enough years of piercing gut-wrenching conversations about sex; how to drive a Gremlin and not look stupid; how strange our parents were when they weren’t really odd at all but we were teenagers so they had to be weird; and we talked through the night as we smoked pot together in college about Siddhartha or how much he loathed The Grateful Dead and loved Steppenwolf. And now, I’m reminded of it all, and it’s been 30 years, almost, since I talked like that to anybody, since I talked to my brother John about anything at all that I needed to talk about.
Amsden writes in a voice quite like my brother’s. This novel’s tone slams past me at the frenzied teenage conversation pace I used to have with John. We were in the same grade in high school, only 18 months apart in age, and we talked as quickly and secretively as possible—always wary of a parent entering the room and overhearing our conversations. We’d be standing in the kitchen and a few sentences would sail by me, and then, all of the sudden, I’d grasp what he was saying, be jolted out of my reverie, and I’d yell, “What did you just say?!” and he would blithely tell me about how he saw a guy get stabbed while walking home from practice, but I missed that part of the story because there were so many other things going on, like how he had a nose bleed after the morning two-a-day football practice and his shirt had blood on it on it when he was at MacDonald’s and then how his friend Willy laughed at him because of the stain and there was crusty blood stuff still around his nostrils and he was embarrassed and angry because everyone in the restaurant turned around and stared at him but he and Willy made up and walked home together the long way so they could check on Mrs. Peterson’s dogs, you know, down 57th Street and then there was this guy yelling at this other guy.
That’s why you pick up this book and just keep going with it. Amsden picks up the word ball and runs back and forth down the literary playing field with it. The rambling fast dialogue never lets up and underneath the surface, once you slow down enough to think, you realize the story contains stark vivid insights into growing up and the pain of being a kid.
Amsden’s narrator talks about having the upper hand with his cousin Mike, about being the all knowing one:
But there was this one time when I wasn’t the boss with Mike, and, because I’m into trying to be honest with you, I think it should be pointed out here. We were playing in the woods this one time, and came up on a rattlesnake. Being around twelve, the only thing that made sense was to start peeing on the thing. You know, just to see what would happen. So there we are, pissing on this rattlesnake, and I look over and see Mike’s got hair, thin and brown, and all burnt looking, where I still had none. And I was older. Not that he knew I was freaking out, not that he knew he could have had the upper hand. I’ve always been pretty good like that, and anyway, Mike ended up slipping on some rock, falling, and pissing all over his chin. If you can even picture that.
This kid doesn’t come from a WASP middle-class family like mine, and the resemblance to my life ends with the eerie feeling that my brother is here after all these years. It’s the tone of the book, the conversation I seem to be having with the narrator that is so familiar. Because that’s what Amsden does—he makes the reader part of the story, sucks you right into it. The story begins with the narrator remembering when he’s 5 years old, and how his father forgot to pick him and his mother up from the airport, late one winter night. This is the introduction to his parents—the dysfunctional father, Joe, and the successful mother, Susan, who gets her act together after she divorces Joe and becomes a successful graphic designer. The story is not “about” the parents as much as it is about the “effect” his parents have on him. Susan, calm and rational, is in the background, in almost a stereotypical mother-way, but she plays all the roles—provider, mother, confidant. Joe is a screw-up, a Peter Pan father who’s slow to grow into adulthood and his influence on Amsden’s narrator is profound as the boy realizes just who is father is and accepts him with all his faults.
The kid in Amsden’s book tells us an honest, open story. Make no mistake, he’s talking directly to you. You suffer and laugh with him, and believe me, you’ll be embarrassed as you recognize yourself in his actions. As a woman, I got tickled because I remembered the stupid questions I asked my brother and how he answered. I’d love to know how a man felt, reading some of the passages, if they sounded as right-on as they seemed to me.
About being petrified of girls in the seventh grade:
. Every time I’d just stand there, look at them like a dumb-ass, these girls in clip-on earrings, their training bras bunched up under T-shirts, lips all smeared with the first touches of lipstick, stonewashed jeans severely cuffed at the bottom. I remember Carla, the girl from Uruguay or Paraguay, one of those, always chewing an eraser, spandex booty shorts riding up her ass like they were trying to exit out her mouth. Or Nanja, the black girl, first one in the grade with breasts, that Heavy D T-shirt stretched so tight the rapper looked twice as fat as he already was. Or Julie, white and Jewish, her bangs coated in so much hairspray they looked like a Slinky. But I’d just look at them, these girls, wait for them to go away, disappear, because that’s when I’d get my voice back, be able to say something.
The amazing thing about this book is its universal timeliness and appeal. It’s for 2003 but it’s for 1957. The plot is pure popular culture—coming of age, learning about sex, going through puberty, and defining family in whatever functional/dysfunctional terms fit. Change the Honda Prelude to a Thunderbird, change the cocaine to hooch, the singer’s name from Kurt Cobain to Frank Sinatra and you still have a book here.
As a reviewer, I’ll tell you—Get this book. Enjoy it. It’s fun. It’s quick. But be warned. There’s a larger story here than appears on the surface. I suspect David Amsden has a lot more in store for us and I can’t wait.