What a great title! No one's going to buy Keith Gessen's novel about young men wrestling with ambition and sex in America over the past decade and complain that they didn't know what they were getting. It does exactly what it says on the tin. People who enjoy seeing disappointment and selfishness raised to a kind of romantic sublime will not be disappointed. This is an excellent first novel that knows exactly how to nudge a character close to the edge of the reader's tolerance, without ever letting them lose their charm and interest.
The sad young men are Sam, Mark and Keith, who are working on, respectively: "the first great Zionist epic"; a dissertation on the Mensheviks (a footnote to the Russian revolution); and liberal political journalism. Except that things keep getting in the way, like the internet, drinking, girlfriends and wives, and other women.
"When he'd been married," considers the revolutionary historian Mark, "all non-Sasha women seemed equally very attractive. Now he had to make some distinctions." Gessen homes in on this streak of self-absorption, but goes further.
The three men insist on comparing their personal trials to the great political issues they have tasked themselves with addressing. Faced with an ultimatum from one of his two girlfriends, Sam looks to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a metaphor. "That was what men did. They promised and promised, and when it emerged that they'd been building settlements and buying arms... they made incredulous faces and promised some more."
Gessen knows how to use restraint, too. The three sort-of-heroes each get their own, long chapters, and these never intersect. Sam and Mark have fallen out – over Israel, of course – before the book begins. Keith's only connection to them is that he ends up going out with the student Mark couldn't bring himself to stay with.
When Gessen brings politics on to the page, he does so judiciously. Sam eventually goes to the West Bank to see Zionism in action. Keith's memories of his political coming-of-age, at Harvard, start from his pining for the vice president's daughter, on-off girlfriend of his awful roommate. This careful integration of the serious and comic sets the book apart from, say, the novels of Jonathan Safran Foer, with which it otherwise shares a certain tone of intellectual self-indulgence. Self-indulgent or not, All the Sad Young Literary Men marks a welcome entry into the American novel.
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