By N. Frank Daniels
Self-published, 274 pages, $15 (paperback)
The first novel and the coming-of-age novel are often one. Two new examples illustrate the promise and pitfalls of fiction built around post-adolescent heroes, whose imperatives by definition include (though in this case to widely varying degrees) intoxicants and sex.
One is locally notable: Ransom Seaborn, by area singer-songwriter Bill Deasy. The other, Futureproof, is the debut of Georgia-based writer N. Frank Daniels (who'll visit Pittsburgh on Oct. 3).
Deasy's Dan Finbar is a middle-class suburban Catholic Pittsburgh kid who arrives a freshman misfit at his conservative, Presbyterian college in the Western PA boonies. He's a budding musician whose lone confidante is reclusive upper-classman Ransom Seaborn, who's like Holden Caulfield with a Sylvia Plath suicide-poet of a dead mom. One night, Finbar opens his friend's dorm-room door only to hear the kill shot: Ransom himself commiting suicide. The mystery in this earnest, soul-searching drama revolves around Ransom's depressive's journal, which an increasingly troubled Finbar discovers and reads along with Maggie, an older classmate and the last woman Ransom dated.
Futureproof (great title) dwells in unboundedly wilder cultural terrain. The narrator is Luke, an Atlanta-area high school outcast who discovers sex and drugs. He drops out and spends the novel pinballing from job to job and woman to woman, and the latter half of it hooked on heroin. Daniels lashes dark comedy and everyday tragedy together in an episodic, plotless series of 53 "transmissions" from smart, rash, unapologetic Luke.
As coming-of-age novels require, we're privy to both protagonists' first sex, some fistfights and considerable alcohol intake. In Ransom's coda, the adult Finbar even slides into alcoholism. Still, while Luke grows up in the early '90s, Finbar seemingly just a couple years earlier, you can't imagine their paths crossing. Ransom's minor characters include Finbar's close-knit family and a dweebish ROTC roomie, and he loses his virginity in a scene of healing bliss that's the novel's only sexual episode. Luke, meanwhile, slices himself with razor blades, spends most of the book drunk, tripping or nodding out, and recounts pals including a Nazi skinhead and an Afro-Hispanic self-styled vampire named Splinter (who's also a fellow junkie). Futureproof features a sex scene every couple, um, transmissions.
Deasy's strength is his sincerity: Finbar's a good kid, and we want him to pull through his dark night of the soul. The chapters consist of short (song-sized?) vignettes, and Deasy's writing can tenderly evoke anything from nights fraught with longing to life's small embarrassments. ("I couldn't seem to find the volume knob for my voice," says his love-struck narrator.) His characters are etched lovingly, often amusingly: "On my dad's mood palette, cheerful and concerned were nearly identical."
Daniels' chief assets are candor, a gift for vulgarly amusing dialogue and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of anecdotes from the crazed American underbelly: a dreadlocked kid's stint as an extra on a Civil War prison-camp movie; countless bollixed drug deals; a lysergically modified weekend at "DragonCon," a role-playing convention highlighted by a funny and rather trenchantly rendered encounter with gnomic fraud Timothy Leary. Another sequence concisely and powerfully juxtaposes Luke's resentments toward his "bio-dad" and his stepdad, the suicide of culture hero Kurt Cobain, the pregnancy of his own girlfriend and her subsequent abortion. At his best, Daniels, who's 32 and grew up partly in central Pennsylvania, makes a fair bid for voice of a generation: a post-punk, post-nuclear-family malcontent stalking the margins of society with a need to believe and precious little to believe in.
Yet despite their differences, the novels have flaws that unite them. These go beyond their joint need for better editing (manifested in, say, Deasy's prolixity, and Daniels' tedious reliance on the adjectival form of "fuck").
In Ransom, the problem manifests partly in Deasy's tendency to overexplain. During Finbar's first beer-swigging drive with Ransom, for instance, the younger guy's emulation of the older makes his hero worship clear; to be told "I was proud to have the acceptance of this person" gives to the reader too little credit, and to the prose the burden of mundanity. A little distance from his characters gives a writer the faith to show rather than tell. It might also prompt wariness about including text written by the book's characters. If these journal entries and poems are supposed to be good, they had better be, especially if other characters say so.
Daniels, likewise, is hostage to Luke. One problem is the relentlessly episodic structure: It's all one thing, one person after another. Another girl, another best friend, another job, another hit. By the time Luke has found the fourth perfect woman, or the fifth time he drags a razor blade across his skin to keep from feeling, I needed things to move on. But Daniels is too immersed in showing us how deep Luke's wounds are, and how raw. With so little distance between author and narrator, it's often more therapy sesssion than novel.
When Luke kicks the crap out of his asshole stepdad, for instance, we're meant to exult along; the chapter is titled "Revenge is Fucking Sweet." There is more irony at a monster-truck show. Later in the book, during a phone conversation with his genial but spineless bio-dad, Luke experiences a dawning empathy for the man. But even this passage feels self-congratulatory ("I want him to know that he just isn't hated," says Luke, suddenly magnanimous.) When Luke, confessed screw-up, unintentionally becomes a father a second time, he acts as though family court owes him custody of his methadone-addicted infant son ... because he knows he's going to change ... and there's little to indicate Daniels feels differently.
Perhaps a formal key to the flaws in these novels is that both are written in first person. In each, the passion of immediate experience is rendered more faithfully than the insight one seeks from art.
N. Frank Daniels reads from and signs Futureproof 4:30 p.m. Tue., Oct. 3. Jay's Bookstall, 3604 Fifth Ave., Oakland. Free. 412-683-2644.