THE OPTIMISTIC DECADE by Heather Abel

THE OPTIMISTIC DECADE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In a comic debut, the lives of five characters come undone at a remote Colorado summer camp.

It takes more than 300 pages for first-time novelist Abel to reveal the meaning of her title, delivered in the baritone of melancholy Ira Silver, who has shuttered his radical left newspaper: “Maybe everybody has one decade, call it an optimistic decade, when the world feels malleable and the self strong.” Twelve pages later, his wife and partner, Georgia, succinctly disagrees: “Such typical Ira bullshit, creating a universal theory out of his own personal malaise.” The recipient of this yin and yang commentary is their daughter, Rebecca, a Berkeley undergraduate, late to her own coming-of-age party. As the novel begins, Ira mystifies Rebecca by ordering her to a high-altitude summer camp: “He’d never given her a gift of any kind before, material or experiential.” The destination, called Llamalo, is run by her charismatic cousin, Caleb, “his name the birdsong of this place.” He tells campers “Llamalo is an invitation to act differently, to be someone new. How often do you get that chance?” Caleb is a bit of a hustler; he bought the failing spread of a small cattle farmer, Don Talc, and his son, Donnie, whose resentment at losing the land morphs into a kind of Cliven Bundy–style rage. Abel is excellent at class resentment and its signifiers—Caleb cleans out the faltering town’s clothes and tools and figurines at auction for camp costumes and art projects. Abel writes in larking, pleasurable sentences, letting each protagonist—including David Cohen, devoted camper and Rebecca’s childhood friend—wrestle with loneliness and horniness and purpose. The story moves across one summer in the early 1990s, with short, clever flashbacks to the Reagan-era 1980s. But the pacing is off: Very little happens in the first third and too much is crammed into the last stretch.

A playful look at Jewish coming-of-age and coming-to-terms in the American West.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-61620-630-7
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Algonquin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2018