At 64, Schutt hasn’t written much compared with her book-a-year colleagues, but almost everything she publishes attracts extraordinary critical praise. Her first novel, “Florida,” was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award, “All Souls” was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, and her short stories have won the Pushcart Prize and two O. Henry Awards. If her striking, lyrical work remains relatively unknown, it’s a house favorite of other literary authors and readers of sophisticated fiction.
“Prosperous Friends” will satisfy that refined audience again. In these dark, delicate pages, two young writers enjoy a short romance, “no more than a sniffle,” Schutt writes, “an accumulation of scenes in thrift shops and workshops, a whimsical wedding in a rhinestone casino” in Las Vegas. Then, almost immediately, they realize they’re incompatible, but their marriage bleeds on, weakening but never dying.
Ned and Isabel met at Columbia University while working halfheartedly on MFAs in creative writing. (The piercing accuracy of these scenes is informed by a lifetime of experience: Schutt earned an MFA from Columbia and has taught at a number of schools.) Ned is popular and distractingly good looking — “a sleek boy in an ad for cologne”; Isabel is lithe, beautiful and despondent. Released from any responsibilities and gassed up on fellowship money, these two blessed kids tour the United States and Europe. Ned fiddles with a collection of short stories and considers writing a memoir. Isabel floats in a corrosive fluid of indolence and depression. “Who was to say what anyone might make of a life, but Isabel was stung by the little startles of those who knew her at what she had become,” Schutt writes in that arresting voice of hers with its surprising sidesteps. “From the girl most promising — no book, no significant publications either, and online didn’t count.”
Isabel remembers promising a college roommate that they would soon be purposeful, employed and well traveled — a plan only a third completed, though she’s already 33 years old. “I need a regular job when we get back to the States,” she tells Ned. “I need something to do.” Together, these two are like poster children for some Marxist campaign against excess leisure. My sympathy for their pain was mitigated by rising irritation at their laziness and self-absorption (and the nagging sense that I’d read enough about the ennui of bright New Yorkers in the New Yorker back in the 1980s). Let Isabel spend a few years asking, “Do you want fries with that?” and then at least she’d have a reason to feel so sleepy and bored.
Like Schutt’s two previous novels, “Prosperous Friends” is relatively short, but the poetic concision and allusiveness of her prose give the story more heft than a mere 200 pages would suggest. Pared almost to the point of stinginess, her sentences never waste a phrase or even a word. In these finely cut scenes, months are reduced to crucial moments, and those moments captured in just a few impressionistic lines. A short section concerning an unwanted pregnancy rivals Hemingway’s elliptical devastation in “Hills Like White Elephants”: