Book review: Sam Munson's 'The November Criminals'

By Michael Lindgren
Wednesday, May 26, 2010


By Sam Munson


258 pp. $24.95

Whatever else you say about D.C. native Sam Munson, you can't accuse him of being sentimental about his home town. The narrator of "The November Criminals," a dyspeptic high school student named Addison Schacht, describes Washington as a "miserable," "pretentious," "second-rate," "fundamentally barbarous . . . pseudocity" where "no one gives the slightest [expletive] about anyone else." This admittedly compressed burst of obloquy is a fair sampling of young Schacht's adjective-heavy style, which he extends not only to his physical environs but to virtually anyone who crosses his path. In the time-honored mode of teen antiheroes everywhere, Schacht's consciousness brims with ennui and contempt.

Munson's novel is nominally a detective story, with Schacht and his sidekick (and bedmate) Digger setting out to solve the murder of a classmate. But the crabwise trajectory of their investigation suggests that the quest is just a framework on which to hang Schacht's energetic soliloquies. Munson is a freewheeling stylist and expert mimic, having installed in his narrator, with dead-on accuracy, the highly developed tragic sense that only an overprivileged 18-year-old can effect without irony. Schacht is often funny, and his voice stays in your head; just because his complaints about the mediocrity of American culture are ineffectual doesn't mean they're wrong, after all.

What does settle awkwardly -- aside from two blithely narrated episodes of animal abuse -- is the slow-blooming realization that Munson has deliberately inflicted an abrasive and unlikable protagonist on his readers, as if daring us to object and thus stand exposed as terminally uncool. In doing so, Munson has, intentionally or not, engineered an exercise in the worst aspects of high school -- the cruelty and cliquishness -- without the benefit of any softening anthropological hindsight. It's as if the bullies and snobs had gone gliding into adult life without receiving their traditional comeuppance.

As a general rule, book publicists who make breathless comparisons to Holden Caulfield should be caned, but in this case Doubleday, weirdly, is on to something. Schacht really is Holden's amoral 21st-century cousin: He shares the profane slanginess and the petulant self-righteousness of Salinger's famous malcontent. Holden's cynicism, however, was a mask that shielded the dreamy idealist within. Take away Schacht's mask, and there's nothing underneath; what's more, he's proud of it. The many -- and many deeply silly -- parsings of "The Catcher in the Rye" that accompanied Salinger's recent death reminded us that for every half-dozen turbulent adolescents who found in Holden a deeply satisfying alter ego, there were one or two who thought him an insufferable ass. The same ratio may operate on "The November Criminals," and you can put this 42-year-old adolescent in the second category.

Lindgren is a writer and musician who lives in Manhattan.

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