Teenage Kicks

The Baltimore Boys by Joel Dicker is a novel in which The Sorrows of Young Werther meets Sidney Sheldon, a sentence I’ve been looking forward to writing ever since I read this book, way back in May. A story of family rivalry, young love, exceptional achievement, loyalty, idealism and tragedy it’s a sort of male coming-of-age saga set in Baltimore, Florida, New Jersey and New York. It reminded me of the big, chunky novels I used to hoover up as a teenager, all angst and money and fame, but it has a bit more literary panache. Not a great deal more, but definitely a bit. I enjoyed it very much and am typing this feeling guilty, as I really should have reviewed it a lot sooner.

If you’ve seen it around you’ll know it’s a real doorstep of a novel, clocking in at 450 pages plus in hardback. It took me a little over three weeks due to my grumpy dry eyes and this was so depressing at the time that I put the book in my to-review pile and didn’t manage to get around to writing about it all summer. I read Joel Dicker’s first novel, The Truth About the Harry Quebec Affair (which was a monster hit) in about three days a few years back, and this is, I think, a better book. It’s a lot less reliant on showy tricks and devices and uses its preoccupations in a more coherent way. Intriguingly, though, it focuses on the same male narrator – bestselling author Marcus Goldman – and digs deeper into his family history, gradually revealing the details of a tragedy in his youth that rocked his extended family.

So, when the story begins, we’re the present day in Florida, with Goldman coming to his second home in Florida suffering from writers’ block. Imagine his surprise when he finds that living nearby is his first love, Alexandra Neville, who is now an international pop superstar. Seeing Alexandra again awakens painful memories in Goldman concerning a tragedy (that will be much trailered, have patience) and we return with him to the past and his late childhood. Marcus’s youth was defined by a rivalrous split in his family between his father and his uncle. The Baltimore Goldmans, headed up by the patriarch Saul Goldman, a rich and successful lawyer, live a life of big houses, fancy vacations and preferential treatment by Marcus’s grandparents. His own Montclair-based family seems humiliatingly ordinary by comparison and at any opportunity Marcus jumps ship to spend time with the high achievers. He longs to be a part of their gilded tribe and to leave his own, lowlier, background behind.

But all is not as perfect with the Baltimore Goldmans as it may first appear. Marcus’s cousin, Hillel is an annoying smartie-pants, a perilous combination of precocious intellect and weedy body, who is constantly bullied at school. His parents despair of finding him an education that he’ll survive, until that is, Woody joins the family. Woody is a young offender who’s received help and guidance from Uncle Saul, and who can’t really find a place to live contentedly either. He and Hillel become firm friends, and Woody uses his superior muscle power to protect him in the playground. This dynamic changes everything, and Uncle Saul and his family pretty much adopt Woody from then on. Marcus loves them both, and visits whenever he can, subsuming himself into their friendship and, with his usual self-conscious awareness of moments when life and art coincide, naming them The Goldman Gang.

Woody’s going to be a sports star, Hillel some kind of genius and Marcus doesn’t know yet what he’ll do but it’s going to be impressive, he’s determined about that. So what ruins this perfect state of affairs? A girl, of course. Alexandra moves in next door to Hillel and Woody and all three fall for her. Cue angst, betrayal and disaster.

The novel takes a long time and drives you round the houses a lot, through numerous time zones, until the denouement is finally reached. But I really like Dicker’s writing style, which is easy and unpretentious, heart-felt without being sentimental. I get very impatient with stories that take a long time to go anywhere, it’s a critical weakness of mine, but I was never impatient with this. He is an author who’s good at creating a world, and what works especially well in this novel is the way that Marcus’s perspective – agog all the time at his amazing relatives and obsessed with achievement – becomes in some ways what this novel is about. Youthful idealisation is the key to the story and the reason why Marcus is the last person to understand what’s happening around him.

There’s something about this novel that gives it an odd throwback feel to me, though the books it reminds me of almost all used to be written by women (Sidney Sheldon being the exception that sprang to mind). I saw a very interesting article by Siri Hustvedt the other day in which she suggests that Knausgaard writes like a woman. Is this the new 21st century literary transgender? Men writing in ways that used to be considered female?

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19 thoughts on “Teenage Kicks

  1. Why *is* it that we can vacuum up those doorstep books when we’re young yet struggle nowadays? (Eyes aside, of course – mind get tired much more easily than they did). And an interesting point about the writing – I don’t know that the fiction I read nowadays necessarily falls into obvious stereotypes and yet certain authors I used to read do so – so that could well be a modern tendency. I shall have to ponder!

    • I used to read everything as a teenager, whatever I could lay my hands on! I’m also much, much fussier these days and getting even more so.

      The point about gender stereotypes is followed up interestingly in the comments section to the Hustvedt piece. I think I must have studied literature about the same time that she did, as I certainly feel that there are multiple aspects of a narrative that may – according simply to certain measurements – be classified masculine or feminine, on the understanding that they are not necessarily linked to male or female writers. And you would often have a mix, of course. I find I am quite okay with that, and indeed do tend to look out for it.

      I have a definition of gender that it’s like the seasons. You can have days in spring that are like summer, or days in summer that feel more like winter, but that doesn’t mean you have to get rid of the categories – you just have to expect a lot of variation within them, while maintaining a definition of what summer and winter would look like. Anyway, it’s not a question that you could usefully apply to all books, and you could probably argue that it has ever been thus. But I do find I am still fascinated by gender issues!

      • As I go older, I start to doubt a lot of gender assumptions, if I’m honest. I find that they tend to be too defining – we are a biological construct, which we often seem to ignore, and we just grow. If we come out differently and with subtle variations, what does it matter in the end? We’re all human, and the spectrum of human emotion is vast.

      • I really like the idea of considering the full expanse of an individual life and understanding that there’s room for any number of gender variations within that lifespan. That’s such a liberating and inclusive – and true! – thought. I’m not sure that I could do away with gender and its attendant definitions, though, as they are so deeply embedded in our culture, apart from anything else, and the ways we think and perceive (and educate). I think you’re talking about who we are, and I’m talking about how we think about who we are – which are often two different things. I agree completely that as individuals we’re oceanic. But how we judge one another and organise society and write about it can be full of those assumptions you mention, and I do think that’s intriguing to consider.

      • Yes, that’s a good differentiation – who we are can be what we want and as fluid as we want. I certainly don’t mind certain gender definitions (I’m old enough to not get so worked up about stuff) and I think we need to just accept each individual as who and what they are. However, your point about the kind of writing is so interesting – if you think about ‘traditional’ male writing – your Alistair McLeans, Ian Flemings and the like – that’s fairly obvious. Likewise obvious female stereotypes like Milss & Boon, Catherine Cookson et al.
        But nowadays is the divide so obvious? And if you went back and compared say Dickens and George Eliot what conclusions would you draw? I haven’t studied my reading enough in that way but I imagine you could set up a whole university course structured around the issue!

      • And what a fab university course that would be! I don’t know what the divide would look like today (having been a lot less rigorous myself in the past decade or so about the way I read!), but I imagine that since men and women are still culturally parcelled up along gender lines, there probably are differences. But doubtless very different ones to those of the 19th century. It would be very intriguing to look at it more deeply – well, probably someone out there IS doing a PhD…. Huge topic, though, and hugely complex.

  2. I’m another wondering why I find it so much more difficult to work my way through doorstop books than I ever did. Maybe the fact that I now live on my own and everything that has to be done has to be done by me rather than being spread through a family. Or does the cynic in me now find it more difficult to fall completely into just any fictional world? Perhaps I was less demanding then. Certainly it does seem to be a characteristic of young readers. I once had a nine year old in my class who for his age was a prodigious reader but it had to be loooong. His Mom had given him Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel to read when he first came to me in September. We compromised with The Lord of the Rings.

    • Ha, good compromise! He’s got the Gormenghast trilogy to get through, if he likes LotR (or wait, is that not suitable for a nine year old? I can’t be sure…). I think you’re right on all counts – there’s just more to do as you get older and more distractions. I was certainly less demanding when I was young (I really did like pretty much everything apart from science fiction and horror). And do you think there’s more big books out lately? It seems as if they’re all over the place, to me.

      • I think that might be a genre related phenomenon. Certainly if you look at this year’s Booker long list the majority of the books are nothing like as lengthy as they were in 2007 when a friend of mine was part of a group asked by the BBC to read all 19 of them in 21 days. More than a third of them were over 500 pages long!

      • Goodness me! There is no way in the world I could read that fast. I couldn’t have done it when I was a teenager, even. But yes, it definitely sounds like the big book was in vogue then.

  3. I have a copy of The Truth About the Harry Quebec Affair and its been staring at me for a while now. The size is offputting.
    I wonder if the reason we shy away from longer books as we get older is that we’re conscious we only have so many books left that we can possibly read in our lifetimes, and if we spend the remaining time on long books, that’s few authors and fewer new ideas to explore. Sorry if this sounds a bit depressing…..

  4. It’s funny—as I was reading your review, I was thinking it sounded like an odd throwback, and then you said exactly that at the end. I like the idea of a slightly old-fashioned book, particularly since his first novel was such a monster hit, partly on the back of the tricks and devices you mentioned. Thanks for the thoughtful review, as always!

    • Andrew, it’s always lovely to hear from you! And of course great minds think alike 😉 The first novel was all head, whereas this one has more heart – and the difference definitely shows.

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