In Boyd’s debut novel, the routines and reflections of a bored high school English teacher sketch an unflattering portrait of American ennui.
Ian Sloan is a nearly numb, 44-year-old public school teacher at the aptly named Anesthesia High School outside Los Angeles. It’s the mid-1980s, and the demographics in his English and journalism classes are shifting. But when Sloan attempts to motivate his students, or engage unsympathetic parents and bumbling colleagues, nothing really changes. Increasing pressure from the administration forces him to instruct one of his only truly promising students, the feisty editor of the student paper, to temper his quill; meanwhile, he continually fights off entitled parents accustomed to grade-grubbing on their slacker kids’ behalf. Adding to Sloan’s woes are his ailing, impoverished father; a distant ex-wife; a troubled teenage son; and a pushy, single-mother grocery clerk intent on roping him into awkward intimacy. These troubles combine to form a quiet, simmering modern drama. Boyd unravels the banal and the tragic in equal measure, and his prose is considered and specific: “He spoke in the monotone of a mechanic giving an estimate, leaving the owner to decide whether the vehicle warranted the expense, and the garage was busy.” The novel engages the same themes of suburban emptiness as Raymond Carver’s or even Philip Roth’s work, but Boyd’s style is his own, with a wider vocabulary but a little less subtlety. Underlying this careful character sketch, however, is an unclear politic; it undoes the fantasy of the noble, inspirational teacher while also commenting on class, race and family, but the opinions aren’t always fully intelligible. Sloan’s recurring fascination with Asian immigration, for instance, never fully develops. Overall, however, Boyd provides sober insights into the day-to-day frustrations of education, family and middle age.
A dramatic, intentionally dreary meditation on modern melancholy.