A soused black sheep goes home to repair frayed family ties in Arrants’ debut novel.
James Nichelson, second son of a publishing dynasty, is a budding writer who finds his soul mate in fetching young painter Bren; feeling that their creative potential can never thrive in moneyed Hilton Head, S.C., they plan to decamp for New York. Alas, Bren gets a professorship at a local university, which precipitates a colossal rift that is briefly and unwisely bridged during a tryst on the eve of Bren’s wedding to James’ bossy older brother, Jonathan. James spends the next few years in Manhattan squalor, working in the Dantean circle of a bar called the Free-fall Club and nursing an epic snit against Bren, Jonathan and the world, unappeased by the no-strings-attached sexual ministrations of a gorgeous, possibly transsexual barmaid named Crystal. He vents his spleen in an unpublished novel and in endless barroom tirades that develop a local following, with Crystal keeping count of his favorite obscenity—rhymes with yuck—on a gong. (Unfortunately, this gong eggs on his rants rather than ushering him off the stage.) Called back by his parents’ deaths, James ensconces himself at the family retreat at Echo Mountain, a bucolic setting tailor-made for nonstop drinking, writer’s block and boozy recriminations. Can further tragedy reunite him with Bren, Jonathan, a cute little girl of questionable parentage and his muse? In telling this swollen saga, Arrants proves himself a talented but fantastically undisciplined and self-indulgent writer. His padded-out prose lurches between cynicism, sentimentality and cloying sex banter, all belabored at unseemly length and volume and badly decorated with song lyrics. James’ loud, profane, sarcastic soliloquies, omnipresent because he is protagonist and narrator, can be vigorous and beguiling in their cocky Southernism, but they are so longwinded that they suck the air out of the novel. A colorful but bloated and exhausting tale of a man swimming through alcohol toward maturity.