One thing that quickly becomes clear in Rebekah Frumkin’s excellent debut novel, The Comedown, is the scope of its ambition. Spanning three generations, two families, and roughly a half-century of American life, it’s at once a study of the society the boomers created and a spirited critique of it, rich with riffs on drugs, politics, art, race, and sexuality. The two busy family trees in the opening pages promise a maximalist work, and the richness of Frumkin’s prose and characterizations deliver on it.
Frumkin, 28, says her novel was only slightly less expansive when she began it seven years ago. “I wanted to write a novel that was sort of Brothers Karamazov–esque, about a family,” she says from her home in Chicago. “It was going to be about this megalomaniacal father and his two sons, both by different wives. I started writing it when I was pretty young, and [later] I got the opportunity to be exposed to different people and different ideas—people who are outside the realm of the snarky, hyperwhite, dark-comedy kind of genre position I was trying to occupy.”
A central patriarch is still key to the story: Leland Bloom-Mittwoch is the first character on the scene in 1999, leaping off the top of a Florida hotel on his 54th birthday, after two marriages and an epic cocaine addiction. A rumor of a suitcase stuffed with cash that Leland left behind has mobilized his relatives, as well as those of Reginald Marshall, his drug dealer. As the story expanded, Frumkin says, and as she worked on it in earnest while at the Iowa Writers Workshop, she began making the tale more pluralistic.
Among the first characters to emerge from that process was Tarzan, the genderqueer partner of Leland’s son. The set piece featuring Tarzan is an affecting portrait of emerging and shifting sexuality, from anxiety and self-loathing (“he tried to find small ways to keep himself from thinking the Thought, but they were almost as bad as the Thought itself”) to a comfortable relationship where “they wanted to spend their life hanging suspended between two poles.”
“The journey from a man assigned male at birth to a somewhat feminine character to a genderqueer person was fantastic for me to write,” Frumkin says, “because I was going through my own process of self-discovery and becoming a person who lives in a more queer life and more out as a queer woman.”
She was careful, though, about the challenges of writing across difference in a novel where half the characters are African-American. At the Iowa Writers Workshop, she consulted with fellow writers, including Tony Tulathimutte (Private Citizens), for a close read of the manuscript. “No one was tasked with reading for sensitivity alone,” she says, but she adds that the experience led her to produce “what I think amounts to something that is more sensitively written, and written toward the characters as individuals. As opposed to prefacing those characters’ existences with their race, which is something that white writers tend to do.”
That’s not to say that the novel is about race or difference as such. As the title suggests, The Comedown is more broadly concerned with the end of the era of boomer free-wheeling behavior and the consequences of what she sees as an intoxicated, emotionally detached age.
“I'm intrigued by how that generation got away with taking as much as they took,” she says. “My generation often gets labeled the me generation: We're always on our phones, we have everything we could possibly want, so why aren't we buying houses and diamonds? But it's just simply more difficult to participate in capitalism and win now than it was then."
Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of The New Midwest.