Can the secret of better living be found in the pages of ultra-niche magazines? One man spends many low-pay, high-angst years finding out in Haas’s debut.
Henry Bay’s career in the glory-free world of enthusiast rags like Crochet Life, Wakeboarding and Monster Truck Tunin’ begins in college. He’s initially interested in studying law so he can sue the aerospace company that laid off his father, but his experiences in a sport that mixes off-roading and parasailing prompts him to move from California to Illinois to work at Kite Buggy magazine. “There’s a magazine as soon as five people find a new way to hurt themselves,” Henry notes, and the author has great fun inventing both obscure publications like Cozy, the Magazine of Tea and the off-kilter people who fill their pages. (One woman crochets throws that depict violent crimes; the editor of Exotic Pets runs an office where a turtle, a kinkajou and a fennec fox mingle with the staff.) Haas has so much fun, in fact, that the thin plot feels like an afterthought. Henry’s older brother Barney is a brilliant scientist who acts out against his suffocating wife by engaging in the kind of extreme sports Henry covers, and their fate is tied to a Unabomber type who darts in and out of the narrative. The novel’s message is clear: Our lives are often lived most sincerely in the hobby-obsessed margins, and the happiest relationships are with those who indulge our quirks. Yet neither Barney nor Henry’s love interest are much more fully sketched than the staffers at the enthusiast magazines, and Henry is an ungainly mix of good intentions and absurdity; the reader loses count of just how many low-circulation magazines he works at in how many small towns. His character rarely feels like more than a repository for Haas’s riffs on subcultures, though Henry’s sincerity keeps the novel from degrading into farce.
A brilliant conceit never finds the right seriocomic groove.