I have always felt that there is something endearing about American literature of the 1950s and 60s, written by angst-filled men – or at least about angst-filled men – seeking meaning or a definition of masculinity or just some tail. Think Dean Moriarty, forever on the road. You can smell a book of that era from a distance, and I find it somehow reassuring to read about these men who are so earnestly convinced of the importance both of their search for identity and of their penises.
People aren’t allowed to write like that anymore, of course. It is simply not sophisticated enough for contemporary readers; we now respond to slick post-modernism or soul-searching therapy (God, are people still reading Eat, Pray, Love?). Writing needs to be more ethnic now to hold our interest (because we’re all sort of done with white men, right?).
The fact is, there are rules for writing in every period, which is why sometimes late at night Henry James and Edith Wharton start to resemble one other. Today’s books, diverse in their topic, voice, and quality, nonetheless are identifiable as “current,” although I am hard-pressed to define why that is.
So, it takes a shitload of courage for an author to publish as his first novel a Greek-American version of Updike’s Rabbit Run set in suburban Philadelphia. In first-person, no less. Who the hell writes in first-person, nowadays?
Jim Zervanos does.
LOVE Park, though well-written, is not the most arresting prose I have read in the last year. It doesn’t startle me with its intensity like most books I have picked up lately, and, frankly, I had a rough start getting into it because I found the protagonist less than appealing. In fact, the damned book made me work to engage with Peter Pappas, a twenty-six-year-old who just can’t get his shit together. I wanted to smack him upside his head time and again and tell him to stop dreaming about how to dislodge himself from inertia and just get on with life.
The book never outwardly solicits the reader’s sympathy. Far from it – Zervanos seems to know that his readers will have little patience for a college-educated man who lives in his parents’ cellar while painting empty apartments white and waiting for something to happen to him – perhaps a career track, or losing his virginity at the very least.
But then, about halfway through the book, one of his little fantasies falls through – because in a book inspired by Rabbit Run, all movement towards change must necessarily end in naught – and I realized I was crestfallen for the poor dude. I felt his wriggling humiliation. Somewhere along the line, Zervanos had gotten me to give a shit about this guy. Not just about Peter, but his father, too, who is as flawed a priest as one can hope to find in literature.
The characters are well-developed, especially Peter’s siblings, Sophia and Andrew. One of the things Zervanos does well is to make the reader think she has gotten a handle on the stereotype that should apply to a particular character and then to undermine that stereotype with a fully-realized person instead. I found this particularly surprising in the character of Daisy, who I did not realize I had accepted as the two-dimensional piece of ass that Peter sees. Then, she confronts him with “You think I don’t have feelings?” and I felt the same sense of shame Peter ought to be experiencing.
There are small track-backs, revelations of little details that don’t amount to much but that act as keys to turn the reader’s understanding of the characters. I really don’t want to reveal any of these, because one of the pleasures of this text is the moment when the entire character revolves and then clicks into a very new place. But, since this is a book review and I have to give some details, there is a moment when one character, hitherto mostly an unbearable pain in the ass, in passing mentions his financial troubles. Suddenly, it is jarringly clear we’ve been viewing him through Peter’s own insecurities, and that he is actually quite human. This happens with each character at some point or another, and each is an opportunity for Peter to grow up.
Which of course he does not do.
Instead, we are also provided small details about Peter that subtly undermine the stereotype he could be. The reader is never in love with him, but we feel his angst. What separates him from Updike’s Rabbit is that we feel a deeper sympathy for Peter, or at least I do. Now, this may be because he is my contemporary…
LOVE Park is well-researched and firmly rooted in its physical environment, which anchors the text nicely. It made me homesick for Philly. There is a sharp but not overbearing sense of humor that pokes up from time to time, but make no mistake that this is a serious book. And it avoids the pitfall so many books seem to tumble into these days: although there is movement to the text, everything is not neatly tied up in the end.
I taught with Jim Zervanos for a year back when we were both a lot younger. He was working on a novel then, and I’ll admit I didn’t take his aspirations too seriously, even though he was a great teacher and a nice person. He was just far too handsome and the teenaged girls were far too in love with him for him to be legit. I am happy to admit that I stand corrected.
I do not think that this was the best book Zervanos could write, although it is quite strong. But it is a brave book, and it is well worth reading. I suspect it is a harbinger of even better stuff to come, and it sure is a more intelligent text than most of what is being published these days.
For the record, my nine-month-old could not stop looking at his picture on the cover and cooing, so I guess the ladies still adore him.