The author of Elders (2013) serves up another story of true belief and its discontents, this time set in the time of failing banks, rising inequality, and the Occupy movement.
It seems fitting that McIlvain should begin his story with a tennis match: tennis, after all, is the beloved domain of David Foster Wallace, patron saint of latter-day postmodern literature, but it also makes a nicely convenient symbolic backdrop against which to pit friends about to face a shattering agon, “a pair of pale intellectuals disgracing the game.” Sam Westergard is a Mormon-turned-socialist; the narrator, Eli, a bookish young man who finds Sam a perfect sparring partner in a Marxist theory course in grad school. (“I was just tired of poetry workshops,” Sam sighs, “and maybe a little curious.”) Theory becomes praxis when fellow travelers turn activist—and when their attention to matters of social justice takes on deadly seriousness. With its distant villain a shadowy Enron-era energy conglomerate, the story recalls Newton Thornburg’s novel Cutter and Bone at a few points, but whereas the earlier story was all sinewy, whiskey-soaked action, McIlvain seems more interested in exploring the contours of friendship and betrayal, with murder and intramural politics more bits of backdrop against that larger scenario of manners and ideas. Readers may find it helpful to have nodding familiarity with Marxist and Trotskyist thought to get some of McIlvain’s learned humor, but old-school lefties will surely nod in appreciation and recognition at his knowing description of communard angst: “What’s with all the Stalinist secrecy around here?” demands a comrade, Jamaal. “Do we have to fuck our way to the top?” An admonition swiftly follows: “What a charming reactionary you’d make.” Altogether, the story seems a touch more labored than McIlvain’s assured debut effort but still memorable, the details just right.
A welcome return that will leave readers looking forward to future work from McIlvain.