By Benjamin Kunkel
Random House. 241 pp. $21.95
A summary of Benjamin Kunkel's first novel, Indecision, sounds like the premise for an outlandish thriller: A man diagnosed with abulia (chronic indecision) is given an experimental drug to remedy the condition before leaving on a trip to Ecuador where he plans to reunite with a Dutch beauty from his past. But don't let this quasi-high-concept premise fool you. Indecision is actually the very funny story of post-Grunge-era slacker Dwight B. Wildering, who, at age 28, suffers an early midlife crisis, despite being a self-proclaimed "happy person."
Dwight is an Everydude. In the film version of Indecision, Dwight would be played by Owen Wilson: goofy, philosophical (naturally, he majored in philosophy), hyper-analytic but often full of it. His life, however, is quietly in shambles: He has a lowly tech-support job at Pfizer; his parents, now divorced, are in the throes of their own (on-time) midlife crises; he lives with too many guys in an apartment with partitions for walls. But Dwight's core problem is that he's incapable of making decisions. (He'll order "everything bagels" because it's impossible to choose among the vast selection.)
Then two things happen: While organizing his high school's 10-year reunion, he receives an e-mail from his old crush, Natasha, who now lives in Ecuador; and Dwight's med-student roommate Dan offers him a pilfered supply of Abulinix, a test drug that may just be the miracle cure for abulia. Dwight takes the Abulinix, and before long he's standing in the airport in Ecuador, waiting for Natasha.
Things in Ecuador don't go smoothly. For starters, Natasha bolts after their first day together, leaving him in the care of her half-Argentinean, half-Belgian friend Brigid, whose English is a little shaky. Then Dwight and Brigid go on what may very well be the worst first date in the history of first dates -- a trek into the hot, spider-dense jungle, whereupon they argue and, among other things, she catches him masturbating. Moreover, as in a good mystery, things are not what they seem, and Brigid isn't exactly who she says she is.
Normally, the Dwights of the world have a difficult time earning a reader's sympathies. He moves from one attractive girlfriend to the next; his father writes him a $100,000 check to tide him over until he gets on his feet; he graduated from good schools and lives in Manhattan. In short, he's had more advantages than most, yet he continues to live like an 18-year-old. On the other hand, to Kunkel's credit, it's hard not to like Dwight. He possesses a childlike innocence as he drifts through the world; we begin to realize that he's a man searching for a larger purpose, and when he finds Brigid, who illuminates for him the ways in which the United States exploits poor countries, he begins to find his calling.
It helps Dwight's likeability that the book is shot through with humor that ranges from the silly ("How do you say non sequitur in French?") to the situational, as when Dwight allows his own sister to be his psychoanalyst. Furthermore, the prose itself offers much pleasure. Kunkel would have given Stanley Elkin a run for his money in the clever metaphor department. Dwight muses on his own dating propensities: "Like a chain-smoker, I'd lit one romance off the stub of another and rarely had time to just breathe." As with all good comic novels, though, there's a seriousness at its core, and Indecision considers this question: What becomes of the slacker in post-Sept. 11 America?
My only problem with the novel -- and it's a small one, really -- is the distracting conceit that the book itself is a memoir written by Dwight, who occasionally refers to the book the reader is holding. This device has no larger purpose, beyond justifying the book's existence, and Kunkel could have done away with it.
Because he's young and uses big words, Kunkel may unfairly be compared to David Foster Wallace or Rick Moody, but unlike them he has succeeded in writing a novel that's clever without being self-conscious. Dwight's plight never plays second-fiddle to Benjamin Kunkel's intelligence. My advice? Read this one. And if you can't make up your mind, maybe it's time to get your prescription for Abulinix refilled. *
John McNally's novel "The Book of Ralph" was recently released in paperback.