As our intern Brooke Knisley has suggested in her blog post “The Intellectualization of the Genre Novel,” we’re apt to skip novels excluded from the list of Editor’s Picks: those novels considered ‘under the radar’. When Brooke refers to genre novels, she includes thrillers we can’t put down; romances that play on our sentiments; and murder mysteries published by all but a select set of recognized serializes. The Genre Novel tag has often extended, when they first appear, to works pockmarked by expletives; while in retrospect so many of these rise to occupy the status of classics, such as Kerouac and Burroughs.
Nonetheless, whether mood or presentation/sensibility relegate Genre Novels to airport turnstiles–on the one hand–and beer-soaked basements–on the other–they are, as Brooke contends, far more than “guilty pleasures.” For they are “indicative of larger events surrounding (their) creation.” Perhaps best poised to present to our current condition is the after-work writer, seated at the kitchen table, under the glare of the florescent lights. If we read only hardbacks displayed in bookstore windows, though, we are we are apt to miss out on new voices, keyed in when the house is silent. It is in this spirit that I choose to write about a recently published novel, Drag, by Domenic D. Augustus & S. M. Dudley, and edited by CambridgeEditors.
When Drag’s main character, Vincent, initiates his divorce, he checks off every decency point: “(He) would pay bi-weekly child support, and cover Kaye’s and Emmy’s health insurance, and Emmy’s future college tuition.” (p. 47) Displayed here are Vincent’s eerie, picture-perfect planning skills. Scanning into the future and back through the past, he fends off blame before his ex-wife, Kaye, has time to vocalize it. Besides, insofar as his daughter is concerned, Vincent wants to continue seeing Emmy, a foot-in-the-door but authentically held gesture. Nonetheless, father-daughter outings, once Vincent has severed all conventional ties, feature the consequences of Vincent’s break with the American Dream. When moments of routine togetherness turn aggravating, Vincent’s bitterness rears up, and is expressed in gratuitous side-remarks playing within his closed-off psyche. Common-place pleasures increasingly evoke sarcasm. His obsessions are on autopilot. What thoughts come to mind when his daughter drops her ice cream cone? “They should put a human kiddie car wash in these family bathrooms. Slide the kids on a conveyor belt to clean face, hands, and fannies all at once.” (p. 99) Relationships with family members have become strained. He no longer perceives their three-dimensionality. The experience of washing up his daughter concludes inwardly with the comment, “So gross.” Involuntary thoughts document the Twitter feed of his decline. With tunnel vision he maps out his master caper.
In the divorce’s immediate aftermath, Vincent allows his appearance to go messy. Once his plan for the future coalesces, though, Vincent rebounds as if to the call of duty. Re-employed and respectable, he dons the look and trappings of his former self. This holds true even after the snag that bungles the first run of his caper—when he is called in for questioning: “[Vincent’s] intent is to remain calm and cool and emit the emotion of a man not entering into a police station to be questioned in a crime, but rather that of a man entering into a post office to retrieve his mail.” (p. 86)
A twinge of ‘wrong’ does tap on Vincent’s shoulder sometimes, personified by his mother in heaven, and by his interrogating officers, their suspicions not entirely quelled. Nonetheless, he enjoys a spell of successfully duping those with whom he comes into contact: on a daily basis as the company man; and when a try at his plan short circuits, receiving the sympathy owed the hapless, injured patient. So why does the ruthless risk that drives him not dissipate? Having found his way out of the status quo, why does he push his luck? The thrill that Vincent derives from each new dare is, the novel suggests, psychologically diagnosable. Nonetheless, what are readers to infer from the way the novel progresses with increasing speed away from Middle Class family conventions, occupations, and expectations of sustained intimacy? Here, I suggest, Drag breaks new ground.
On the theme of perfectly good marriages ending in divorce, when Drag’s central character leaves his life–unlike in Cheever’s and Updike’s novels–his goal is not to maximize seductions–others’ wives–nor is it the pursuit of a generalized lust. The trope of consummating, bonding with another, for however briefly and even when that “other” is objectified, cannot be the motivating feature here. It is precluded by the focus self-preoccupation. None of Vincent’s reasons fit familiar, prior molds. Although Vincent is wistfully envious of those born into the haves, greed is not a motivation. In the course of the novel, drink and bad company are too transitory to count. And although apathy precludes guilt, Vincent wishes no one harm. This would explain why we are inclined neither to damn, nor pity, the character or his plight.
Vincent may be a character to whom the paradigmatic American notion of responsibility does not apply. Does it give way to a determinism of sorts? And if we yield to this notion, does it apply, by extension, to the incomprehensible landscape of our new, American times?
Find out more at the author’s website: https://writtenraw.com/.
– Dr. Harte Weiner
CambridgeEditors founder and lead editor