My generally positive review of Sam Munson’s first novel appears in the June issue of Commentary.
The November Criminals is a tale told by an adolescent, in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye. Unlike Twain and Salinger, though, Munson is the same age as his narrator. And that worries me a little. I hope he does not turn out to be a one-book wonder. His prose is too good for that.
One of the best things about his style—and his book—is that the first-person narrative gives Munson the opportunity to write aphoristically. Too often a novel in the first person is merely (in a phrase I have used elsewhere) the voluble decanting of a self—a monologue sustained, if at all, by voice. Munson, though, has a story to tell, and a view of fiction that demands a story to tell. At a dangerous curve of the narrative, Munson’s narrator Addison Schacht says:
To avoid the trap of first-person self-indulgence, Munson’s narrator keeps his observations pointed and brief. “Reliable mediocrity, I’ve decided, is the most important thing for the continuation of human existence,” he says. “We can’t get by on romantic disaster.” And the reason is that “at the small scale nobody behaves in accordance with all the high ideals they talk about; everyone acts like animals, domesticated animals maybe, but still animals.” Addison admits he is an “emotional hypocrite,” but so is everyone else in Washington, D.C., where he lives: “no one gives the slightest fuck about anyone else, except concerning that other person’s ability to help them advance in life.” Rather than mouthing an “offensive platitude” about how he and his generation are going to be different—rather than lying, that is—Addison gives some reason to hope by his very anger and honesty.
So does Munson, even if his first novel does contain a gratuitous assault upon Philip Roth’s Indignation, which is described unmistakably. Addison promises not to “abuse your trust and impose on your goodwill” like Nathan Levitan in Rage, a book picked up by his father in a bookstore on the way to visiting his son in the hospital. “D.C., like most fundamentally barbarous cities, contains a large number of bookstores,” Addison says resignedly. “As a kind of camouflage to deceive unwary visitors.”
Munson needed no such camouflage in his wonderful first book, and I hope he writes many more.