At the beginning of Marshall Boswell’s short-story collection Trouble With Girls, a fly ball miraculously drops into 12-year-old Parker Hayes’ baseball glove. Parker, already a budding equivocator, takes this for an epiphany: the secret to life lies in “what you do after the bat goes crack. Run to the ball or let the ball come to you?” Ultimately, Parker decides, either action is fine, “so long as you’re ready.”
Gerald Brinkman, the hero of Boswell’s first novel, is an old hand at letting the ball come to him. Alternative Atlanta (the title refers to the free weekly newspaper for which Gerald reviews music) begins in July, 1996, six days before the start of the Summer Olympics. It’s a time of crisis for Gerald, who worries that “somewhere along the road of adolescent development he must have missed a crucial exit, the one marked Adulthood or Responsibility or something.” In his seedy apartment, with his cat named Lester Bangs, he’s all washed up at the tender age of 30.
Gerald traces his apathy to childhood; since his emotionally distant father crashed the family car, killing Gerald’s mother, when Gerald was 8, our hero has embraced popular music as both mentor and parent, internalizing rock ’n’ roll’s lessons (“Don’t sell out, don’t grow up, don’t overstay your welcome”) while spurning his father’s sporadic efforts to bridge the gap. “Nothing his father ever gave him to read hit him as deeply as Born to Run or Armed Forces or Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. His only consolation these days is that he’s probably not alone in this fact.”
Well, no, he’s not. For one thing, there are all those feckless Nick Hornby protagonists who flounder through their post-college years cataloguing their record collections and flubbing their relationships. But unlike Hornby’s characters, who’ve convinced themselves that limbo is the place to be, Gerald finds his aimlessness wearying. His job no longer thrills him, and he’s still hung up on his ex-girlfriend Nora, which is unfortunate: the novel opens with her wedding to another man. Now that Nora’s married, “Gerald is officially all alone in the Singlehood, a sloppy rent-cheap section of life littered with unused condoms and empty fast food cartons and haunted everywhere by the hollow promise of pure possibility.”
Poor Gerald. Since he broke up with Nora, he’s contracted “a case of insomnia every bit as tenacious as herpes.” He’s managed to work his way through one six-count box of condoms in a little over two years, enjoying a couple of bittersweet encounters with ex-girlfriends, some “exciting outdoor sex” with a bartender who freaks out post coitem and ends up “dashing wildly through the woods in her bra and cutoffs, Gerald in tow, both of them stoned and petrified,” and, finally, a bungled attempt with a young neurotic on the cusp of joining AA. The marijuana-fueled panic attack that follows nearly inspires Gerald to change his aimless ways—if he only knew what to do next. Should he model himself after his yuppie peers, with their pretentious kitchens and their sunglasses “that probably cost about as much as Gerald spends per month on marijuana”? Or should he stay the renegade course, like his mortifyingly eccentric father, who materializes in Gerald’s apartment with his worldly possessions in plastic bags, spooking Gerald’s landlady?
Gerald’s father may be the only man on the planet as evasive and intractable as Gerald himself, and it’s both amusing and satisfying to watch our hero try to cope with someone even more recalcitrant than he. Boswell has a real gift for depicting secondary characters—some of the most vivid and interesting people in the book appear for no more than a single scene—and as long as the tone remains light, the book zips along nicely. But Boswell wants the parallels between Gerald and his father to turn deeply symbolic: as the novel progresses, the plot doesn’t so much thicken as congeal. Gerald, it turns out, is an unwitting player in a tangled web of betrayal and infidelity in both his parents’ generation and his own. You can hardly blame him for wanting only to hide in his squalid apartment taking hits off his ceramic Yoda pipe.
As the coincidences pile up, the novel loses its fizz; Gerald’s cluelessness, used earlier to brilliant comic effect, becomes a liability both to the plot and to the writing itself. Even a reader who’s skimming for funny parts will have no trouble staying ahead of Gerald, who develops the annoying habit of elucidating the plot’s twists a few paragraphs after they’ve become obvious. Likewise, Gerald’s sense of his own futility, once so sharply and amusingly conveyed, begins to seem depressing and trite. “He feels worse than ever about his relationship with his father and all the lost opportunities he’s let fall through his fingers,” Boswell tells us, two thirds of the way through the book. “And he’s disgusted at the botch he’s made of his own life.”
Fortunately, we’re not long for this botch; Boswell, a Memphis native who earned his Ph.D. at Emory University in Atlanta before returning to Memphis as an English professor at Rhodes College, has clearly internalized some aspect of Chekhov’s dictum: if your story begins in Atlanta in July of 1996, sooner or later a terrorist bomb must explode. The blast has direct (and tragic) consequences for Gerald, who’s at ground zero in Centennial Park when it goes off, although we’re also meant to take the explosion as a metaphor—it blows the lid right off Gerald’s complacent little world.
Still, anyone determined to see Gerald run to the ball will be disappointed. Ultimately, he gets the girl, the house and even a new baby through no particular effort of his own. If he falls into adulthood as down a mineshaft, it’s good news for slackers everywhere: don’t sweat decisions, just stay ready. Domesticity and taking care of a baby make Gerald happy; to his surprise, “he’s a natural father.” It’s a fitting conclusion to what is ultimately a charming book: this is the way the novel ends, not with a bang but a whimper.