As heard on This American Life, here’s a little something for any who’ve ever had a “friend” whose amazing life made their own seem pathetic.
Set up as a one-way conversation, with the protagonist never heard but always painfully felt, the story takes some generationally specific insecurities and spins them into a novel about growing up in the 1990s and never getting anywhere. The never-heard-from victim is a woman graduating from Clarkwell College in 1990 and doomed to make a career out of a degree in Folk & Myth, only to be subjected to a series of interactions over the following years with the titular Underminer, a diabolically manipulative “best friend” who’s always there to remind the victim just how ludicrous her life is, though she’s never without a smile on her face. Underminer reminds the victim of her relationship missteps (“they were really close all through freshman year before you grabbed him I mean pinned him down I mean started dating him”), fashion miscues, personal hygiene problems (“Did you throw up? No, no I just smelled throw-up for a second”) and weight issues (“You look sexy the way your body looks now. You’re not too fat”). The dialogue rolls forward through 15 years, the victim bumping into the Underminer at every passing cultural signpost (indie filmmaking, Burning Man, Internet dating), always half a step behind and terminally clueless. Her friends all go on to bigger and better things while her band comes to naught, her poetry doesn’t pan out, and before long she’s a cater-waiter at glamorous parties the Underminer is almost too cool to attend. Comic monologist and fiction author Albo (Hornito, not reviewed) and Heffernan, Albo’s co-writer and TV critic for the New York Times, skillfully mine the slacker generation’s insecurity—with its need to be in on the next big thing without appearing to care—and add a spicy dash of psychological tension as the Underminer cheerfully chips away at every facet of the victim’s desires and achievements until little is left. Yet funny.
The rare one-joke book that never gets old, with a pleasingly tangy aftertaste.