Friday, July 12, 2013

Book Review : Douglas Trevor - Girls I Know (2013)


Order GIRLS I KNOW here

Halfway through his senior year in college, Walt decided to apply to PhD programs in English. He told the professors he approached for letter of recommendation that he wanted to continue his studies of twentieth-century American Poetry, which was true, but just as much, he wanted to stay in school. College was, for him, like Early Bird Café before he had discovered the Early Bird Café.

The easiest books to review are those you absolutely loved or completely hated. Whether I praise or destroy a novel, you WILL be curious to what triggered such a powerful emotional response from me. Douglas Trevor's GIRLS I KNOW elicited neither of these reaction, yet I believe it's a novel that deserves to be read. To make a sports analogy, it's neither an all-star or a scrub, but an efficient role-player. GIRLS I KNOW is written in the tradition of East Coast middle-class novel that John Updike and John Irving also belonged to. Despite having obvious flaws, it also does some things very well.

While it's presenting itself as a novel on trauma, GIRLS I KNOW is a little more than that. It's about Walt Steadman, an Academic with his PhD candidacy in American Poetry caught in a tailspin. Hung up on his quiet habits, he aims to keep his love story with Boston as small and intimate as possible. He is brought back to reality in brutal fashion though, when he witnesses a  fatal shooting in his breakfast place, The Early Bird. Unable to shelter himself from the horror, Walt has to descend from the intellectual pedestal he created for himself, to confront his fears. That includes fostering a relationship with young Mercedes, orphan of The Early Bird's owners. So while the plot revolves around trauma, I would rather qualify GIRLS I KNOW as the coming-of-age of a late bloomer.

You'll have to get over a few things to enjoy this novel. First, the cover is unappealing, so you won't be prompted to pick it up at the store. It's not the visual as much as it's the red and beige stripes that make it such a dud. Also, Douglas Trevor has the bad habit of doing what I call ''Updikian Intrusions'' where he seems very enthusiastic about telling his reader everything that's great about Walt. Trevor doesn't have an ounce of the subtlety of the legendary man of letters while doing it, so it can get pretty jarring, especially that Walt can be fascinating on his own, through his actions. Fortunately, it's a lot worse in the first two chapters, but it's still a chronic problem throughout the novel. If you can manage to pick up GIRLS I KNOW and tune out those intrusions, there is a lot to like about it.

"How did you know it was me?"

"You're out of area. No one else I know is ever out of area."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh my God, you don't know what caller ID is, do you? You've never used a cell phone! That's so cute. Oh Walt, you still have your virtues, you little caveman."

GIRLS I KNOW succeeds as a contemporary novel though, because of its courageous upfrontness about the mechanics of emancipation. It proposes a clear, methodical solution to the burning question : how does somebody becomes a better, happier person? Trevor addresses something I have never seen addresses so bluntly in fiction before, something I call ''intimate poetics'', the stories one tells himself to filter his perception of the world. Some would call it ''self-righteous bullshit'' but I believe it's something way too far spread to condemn. Literally, everybody does it to some degree and yet Walt does it a lot. Trevor never lets him get away with it though and whenever Walt tells himself a story about what his place should be and how things should happen, he is violently brought back to reality.

There is a beautiful scene where Mercedes storms off on him during tutoring and Walt has an amazing discussion with her grandmother where his own poetic vision of raising a child is confronted to what it really is.  As someone who has been a single, solitary academic myself, I could appreciate the accuracy of it all.The fact that confronting reality helps Walt break through his limitations makes GIRLS I KNOW all that more empowering. I'm not sure this was the original aim of the novel, but it sure succeeded at making it a strong point.

Douglas Trevor's first novel has strong ambitions. Maybe too much at times, but you have to respect an author who acknowledges and takes responsibility of the meaning he wants his book to have. Trevor has the prose and the unique insight on the human condition to become another names in the tradition of great East Coast writers. He would benefit from a smaller scope (his approach of social issues is not very successful) and more confidence into his ability of telling a story, but the man's got game. I've learned not to form final judgments with a first novel because in literature, unlike music, it's often the worst offering of an author. If it's the case, the publishing industry should rejoice because GIRLS I KNOW is already quite good.

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