Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review: The Ordinary White Boy by Brock Clarke

The blurb on the back of Brock Clarke's The Ordinary White Boy could be about me:
At twenty-seven years old he can't dance unless he's had more than a few drinks. His wardrobe is uninspired, at best. He has returned after college to Little Falls, his miserable, working-class hometown in upstate New York...
And we love to read about ourselves don't we?

I've been told, and to a sense I agree, that the history of literature is too often regarded as the history of white men. Look at the top ten of the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels: Irish man, American man, the same Irish guy again, Russian man, British man, another American man, a third American man, a Hungarian-British man, another British man, a fourth American man. You have to go #15 to find a woman (Virginia Wolff), to #19 (Ralph Ellison) to find the first non-Caucasian, and I lost interest in searching before I found someone not born in American or Europe.

So, yes: discrimination! But...
I wouldn't say any of those top ten books reflect who I am, beyond the broadest strokes: white men, educated in the Western Judeo-Christian canon, alive in the 20th century...

Sometimes a list of the most important novels of the 20th century is just a list. And sometimes the murder of the only hispanic man in a lily white Upstate New York town is just a murder.

That's the dynamic The Ordinary White Boy explores. And I see so much more of my life in it than in most books.

Stephen Daedalus is exceptional, like Joyce. For White Boy's protagonist Lamar (and for me, and for, I suspect, Brock Clarke) exceptionalism is a less certain thing.

But the expectation of exceptionalism hangs there. Like the narrator of The Zeroes, much has been expected for Lamar from a young age, and his early twenties were supposed to be the launch point. He graduated from college and was ready to set off into the world a man.

Only Lamar wasn't much of a man yet, and he didn't quite set off (the phrase "Failure to Launch" comes to mind). So at 27 going on 28, Lamar is not much more than he was at 22.

He tries. He wants so badly to be galvanized by what is happening in his small town- for a recent murder to kickstart his failed ambitions, as we've seen traumatic events do so often in books and films (think about the long string of films featuring Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell, a genre [I think] subverted by Judd Apatow).

Only the kickstart doesn't take. Lamar, perhaps a little too self-aware for his own good, can't get beyond the reductive drag of modern life. A thing has happened and we should be outraged. And maybe we are, but nothing changes, so when it happens again we can't muster the same level of outrage, and we find that the world goes on just fine in that case too. So long as the tragedy doesn't happen to me, I don't have to care. In fact, it's safer not to care, since no one around you will get all that worked up either.

That's modern life. Caring only as much as is safe.

And that's all Lamar can bring himself to do, and I've read plenty of reviewers that hate him for that. And I agree with their disappointment, and I agree with their indignation. But ultimately, I agree with Lamar- ordinary and safe and predictable bring so many challenges, more challenges than we can possibly overcome, so why bother tilting at windmills?

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