Review: All The Sad Young Literary Men

By Madeleine Kingsley, March 28, 2008

By Keith Gessen
William Heinemann, £12.99

Keith Gessen — New York’s hip heartthrob co-founder of n+1 magazine — calls his first novel All the Sad Young Literary Men. An alternative might be The Road from Harvard is Paved with Misdirection, for Gessen’s three Jewish male protagonists stagger out of college a touch too drunk on intellectual argument for the real fin-de-20th siecle American world.

Overly obsessed with his dissertation on the Mensheviks, Mark expects his tiny Russian wife to relish their $70-a-week lifestyle. Sam is surely destined to repay his publisher’s advance for “the first great Zionist epic” (he has no idea that a guy called Leon Uris got there first, and he’s never seen Israel). As for first-person narrator Keith (hmm, how come Gessen claims he’s written “a fiction” but gives a lead character his own name and dedicates his book “for my friends with apologies”?), he seeks a political career in “liberal punditry”.

In college, however, Keith is cast as the sorry sidekick exiled to the study couch, so his room-mate can sleep with a Vice-President’s daughter.

Family honour somehow rests upon Keith’s all-American success: his Russian immigrant parents dreamed high but made necessary accommodation with the swastikas daubed on his high-school washroom walls.

Despite false starts, these three men in the same wry, cerebral boat mean to grab history by the throat and change its course. They will turn the tide of the US military in Iraq, and coax the Israelis from the West Bank. Has nobody told them that, were it so easy, their Eastern European grandparents (some of whom make brief beguiling cameos here) would have saved the world already?

It is doubtful our eponymous, sad trio would even hear. Their internal monologues of lust, hope and confusion drown out the voice of calm, get-on-with-life reason. No hostile force need put out a foot to trip these boys on their march to maturity; they do a fine job of tripping themselves.

If anyone can call them to order in Gessen’s chronicle of questing identities, it is the passing parade of women (like sex-advice columnist Katie, the “Edith Wharton of text messaging”) who come, see, briefly conquer and (mostly) move on.

Gessen’s handle on the highways and byways of young male thinking sounds spot-on authentic: high on the erotic and ego-massaging content, and low on consideration or commitment. “Looking back now”, logs Keith at 27, “I see there were things I did not know about life. For example, that if a woman doesn’t sleep with you right away, she might stay inclined not to — the pleasure of resisting has become too keen, or maybe she doesn’t like you. At the time I thought I was just messing up… I didn’t know what the trouble was, exactly, but I thought it could be figured out.”

Just so do great movers and shakers think they can figure out history. But each generation, Gessen suggests, must learn anew, setting off from virtually the same old starting blocks. Finding a way forward takes these sad young literary men their entire twenties. Even then, resolution occurs less by intent than happenstance: as a wandering Jew, blundering into West Bank Jenin, Sam experiences his own private and personal peace talk with the unlikely Muslim Akhmed. It is amazing what can transpire while watching a Hizbollah cookery show on TV.

Mark finally finishes his dissertation but will he show up for his viva? And Keith, juggling two women and disaffection with the government that allows so much loss — the environment, Iraq, the Middle East — is surprised to find life not only goes on, but renews. No shmaltz for an ending here — just a slight softening of centre from the Jewish bibliophile’s latest beefcake.

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance critic

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011