Divorced parents are confusing, girls are confusing, bandmates are confusing, living in Kalamazoo is confusing—and so on.
Back before it was marketed as a lifestyle option for overly sensitive poetic teens, “emo” signified an unusually ascetic, self-lacerating brand of punk rock. Vim Sweeney, the hero of this debut novel set in 1992, is a member of that tribe: He’s 17, just out of high school, and plays guitar in a band, the Judy Lumpers, that allows him to vent his anxieties about feeling aimless in the sticks. His home life is cracked but stable—dad’s absent, but his stepfather is a sturdy wage-earner with a ready arsenal of platitudes about the value of hard work. So Vim’s biggest worry is erasing his status as a virgin, though hooking up with Helene, his bandmate’s girlfriend, wasn’t his wisest move. Charles captures this milieu in elegant, poetic and sometimes overly florid language—he has an affinity for long strings of run-on prose that gush about love and fear of the future, though he’ll also knock you back with a taut bit of abstraction. (Complete text of chapter 69: “Time like wave after wave eroding us.”) Charles introduces a host of relatives, scenesters and quirky locals, jumping from noisy punk shows to dull dinners with mom and stepdad at the Olive Garden, and his tone and imagery does an impressive job of capturing the moment when you’re so eager to get out of your adolescence you’re fit to burst. But the storytelling is oddly static, and too often Charles expends his energy fussing over the finery of his prose instead of moving the story forward. Readers born on the cusp of Gens X and Y could use a spokesperson who can do better than crack jokes and make cool band references, and Charles seems eminently qualified for the gig. But he’s not there yet.
A talented writer earnestly searching for a story to tell.