4/4/2013 - Don’t let anybody, even the author, tell you that Good Kids is a coming-of-age novel, or a book about families, or Millennials, or weirded out musicians. This is a book about divorce. It’s about how the dissolution of a marriage with children corrodes absolutely, shooting out consequences downstream like a river.
Benjamin Nugent’s novel begins in 1994 when his protagonist, 15-year-old Joshua, witnesses his father kissing a woman who is not his wife in a natural-foods store in the fictional town of Wattsburg, Mass. To complicate matters, Josh watches this canoodling in the presence of the daughter of the woman his father is kissing.
The teens are horrified and repulsed, and unsure of what to do next. They’re not even sure what exactly they saw. In the ensuing days, they conspire to discover the truth, and in the process, make a pact that neither of them will ever cheat on a partner. And Josh falls in love, as teenaged boys are prone to do with girls “so beautiful my face was going to burn off.” Or maybe it’s not love. He’s not sure, and neither are we, as from the opening page, the reader is invited to wonder if love ever lasts, or if we’re all better off cascading from one relationship to another and not dabbling in dubious concepts like forever.
When Josh’s little sister learns that her father is moving out, she goes up to her room and proceeds to burn the set of letters she’d written to her future husband, scattering the remains from her bedroom window like a priest distributing ashes on the first day of Lent. Josh’s reaction is not as dramatic; he’s unhappy with his father’s deployment from the family and exhibits a wise cynicism about a man who calls his boy “Joshie” and perpetually plans to live in New York and write Montaigne-like essays, the true life that domesticity cruelly kept from him.
“My mother was abundant and my father was rare,” Josh confides. The truth may not be, as Khadijah intones dourly, that their parents hated them, but more that, as Josh perceives, the Dads are just not that into them. (The kids call Joshua’s father and Khadija’s mother “the Dads” because both are the incommunicative breadwinners.)
The scene that the Good Kids witness catapults both families down not entirely unexpected paths, and Khadijah and Joshua come of age in different cities, then different states, then different coasts. Joshua parlays his modest talent for bass playing into a gig with a band called the Shapeshifters, which has a few hits, enough for Josh to bumble through young adult life without holding a “real” job, which fulfills his goal to never be like his real dad. He falls in love with a winsome young animal wrangler named Allison (think Steve Irwin, with a cynical wit), and the two make plans to marry and have three children, sketches of whom they tape to their bathroom wall.
Then our old pal Khadijah shows up, also freshly engaged at 28. What transpires might not be what you’d expect.
It’s a compelling plot that unfortunately does not translate into a page-turner, not for poor writing — Nugent’s is crisp and original — but because the characters give us little reason to care. The Dads are self-absorbed and mildly pathetic; the new loves largely inconsequential; and we never know quite what to make of Josh and Khadijah, but if this were a movie, we’d say they have no real chemistry. Josh yearns for Khadijah in college and beyond, but it’s the yearning of someone who vaguely remembers having a good time at Disneyland but can’t articulate what, exactly, was so pleasurable. An intellectual with passion, she was different from the masses, and when Josh moves to New York, he’s in search of her, always. “I had nothing against my classmates or my roommates, but I knew that any big city had Khadijahs in it, and I hunted the Khadijahs of New York,” Josh says.
This is Nugent’s second book; his first, American Nerd, subtitled “The Story of My People,” was part memoir, part reporting, part short story. The director of creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University, he is a gifted wordsmith, and his background as a musician lends realism to Josh’s musings on bands and families.
“A band,” Josh says, “can only play well if it’s a happy family, whereas a family can soldier on as a shell of itself without anybody outside noticing. A family doesn’t perform for anybody but itself; a band performs for a crowd, and so cannot hide its unhappiness. Its unhappiness rots its music from within.”
There’s wisdom in here, like a New England spring, a little slow to emerge, and many passages of truly lovely language; I just wish we cared more about how Josh and Khadijah wind up. B