Book World: Jessica Cutler Reviews 'This Is How It Starts,' by Grant Ginder

By Jessica Cutler
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 8, 2009


By Grant Ginder

Simon & Schuster

277 pp. Paperback, $14

It may not seem like a bad way to start, using an iconic novel such as "Bright Lights, Big City" as the template for your debut. Just replace New York with Washington (so hot right now!), publishing with politics, the Coma Baby with a seersucker bow tie, and there you have it: the D.C. version of Jay McInerney's classic. Someone had to write one eventually.

Grant Ginder's first novel, "This Is How It Starts," wants to be the one so badly that it reads like a Mad Libs version of "BLBC." It starts with protagonist Taylor Mark already drunk at a pre-recession Gold Cup (instead of high on Bolivian marching powder at the Palladium) with his friend Chase Latham, a Tad Allagash knockoff who keeps Taylor out late on weeknights, making him miss work at his entry-level job on the Hill (in "BLBC," it was "the magazine"). Right away, Taylor wants the reader to know how alienated he feels as he drinks champagne and eats caviar with his friends. "The crowd's doing the waltz, see, and I'm tripping through a tango," he says, and it's not the first time we'll have to read this eye-roller. (The author apparently thinks this line is poignant enough to be a refrain throughout the book.)

Where this alienation comes from isn't clear at first. Taylor is a rich kid from Laguna Beach, Calif., and despite spending four years at Penn and having connections that get him a job in a congressman's office, growing up in the O.C. is enough to have made him feel like a total outsider. Soon the story backtracks a few months to Taylor's graduation, when he learns that his parents are breaking up.

"I'm a straight white guy from Orange County whose parents are divorced thanks to a midlife crisis. If anyone here is a cliché, it's me," Taylor admits to a sympathetic co-worker. The divorce weighs on him, so he starts smoking and drinking. His friends are all cokeheads, but Taylor never partakes, making this one of the duller downward spirals in modern fiction. And when he starts sleeping with his congressman's hottie wife, even the sex scenes manage to be boring.

In fact, Ginder's prose is rarely amusing or enjoyable. Perhaps it's moony and aimless on purpose -- all part of the ennui and disillusionment, as though the characters are intentionally cliche because Washington is really like that.

That approach might have seemed stylish back in the 1980s, but 25 years after "Bright Lights," "Less Than Zero," etc., it just isn't fresh anymore. Ginder could be another Jay McInerney or Bret Easton Ellis, if that's what he wants, but he'll have to start all over.

Cutler is the author of "The Washingtonienne."

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