Wasted Youth 

Hyped as the lit-world’s Hot New Thing, David Amsden has little to offer in his first book

Hyped as the lit-world’s Hot New Thing, David Amsden has little to offer in his first book

Important Things That Don’t Matter

By David Amsden (William Morrow, 266 pp., $24.95)

Writing about childhood seems like it should be easy—we were all kids once, after all, and every grandparent can wax endlessly about being a stripling in a bygone era. But the emotional intensity of youth can trip up an unpolished writer. A deep reservoir of material, childhood can resemble a broken dam, an uncontrollable stream of ideas, when tapped. Skilled writers know how to control it, how to corral their memories. Unskilled writers, however, drown.

David Amsden, the 23-year-old debut author of Important Things That Don’t Matter, is the latter—not to mention an unskilled writer who has only recently emerged from his own confused adolescence. The book is a thinly veiled memoir about growing up in a broken home in the strip-mall-infested Maryland suburbs, just outside Washington, D.C. The main character is never identified; other characters conveniently never use his real name. His mother is a by-the-bootstraps graphic designer who leaves his father after one too many floozy- and alcohol-filled nights. As his mother’s business takes off, his father flounders, moving in with his brother and eventually to New Jersey. The story runs from the narrator’s early youth to college, recounting run-ins with his pedophiliac older cousin and his first sexual encounter along the way.

The teenage wasteland of the early 1990s is a yet undiscovered trove of literary gems, and Important Things could have been the book to find them. But Amsden ruins his chances by writing what amounts to an extended therapy session, a series of bite-sized vignettes full of whining, self-obsessed, poorly conceived set pieces that do little to advance the story or develop characters. At times, he uses this confessional tone to avoid character development: “Me and Mom were pretty close, real close, like so close I don’t want to talk about her too much here, don’t want to taint her like that.” And instead of slogging through the difficulties of the narrative arc, when Amsden wants to move forward, he simply starts a new chapter, which moves the story along chronologically but leaves out any hint of emotional progress.

Needless to say, Important Things could have used a good editor. Beyond structural issues like misused tenses and redundant paragraphs, the book has a fundamental problem with style. It reads more like diary entries than a novel; Amsden’s prose is full of such interjections as “like,” “as hell,” “whatever” and other teen-isms that in limited use might give flavor to the narrator’s voice but, when they appear on every page, sound suspiciously like poor editing. Amsden, who is being hyped as the New York lit-world’s Hot New Thing, has a decent eye for detail, but those details—what people are wearing, how he moves around town—he presents as tiresome laundry lists, rather than using them to build the novel.

The book’s fundamental problem, though, is the narrator’s voice. Amsden can’t settle on one, so he flits, unannounced, between two. There’s the jaded, college-age narrator, who dismisses entire swaths of life with meaningless, immature affectations. “I guess it’s an interesting story,” he says of his parents’ marriage, “but as you can see, before I knew what was what they were divorced, so I’ve never really cared.” Amsden clearly wants this to be the dominant voice, but at times—especially when he’s recounting things that happened in early childhood—he’ll fall into an über-naive, prepubescent persona. This sort of split-personality narration has potential, and some writers can do it well. But Amsden can’t transition cleanly between the two; why he chooses one voice over the other at any given time is a mystery. Had he placed these voices within a structure—say, a psychiatrist’s visit, as Philip Roth does in Portnoy’s Complaint—then the jerky movement between voices might make sense. But he doesn’t, and the reader is all the worse for it. (Ironically, Amsden begins the book’s two sections with epigrams from Faulkner, which remind the reader how a real writer does voice, and how poorly Amsden does in contrast.)

Lacking a narrative arc, a strong voice and developed characters, Amsden is out of luck when he tries to cash in on the book’s central themes: parental love and the lack thereof, broken homes and modern adolescence. At one point, his mother and father both buy him cars. But the one from his mother is a new Honda, while his father could only afford a broken-down Mercedes. When his father realizes he has been outclassed by his ex-wife and that, in turn, he might lose his son, we come close to empathizing—but because his father’s character is so flat, it’s merely bathos.

Counterposed to those scenes are weird, almost moving moments of emotional distress; the narrator says, suddenly, that he likes to cut himself, or throw eggs against the wall. But whether he’s 11 or 21, he doesn’t know what to think of his problems, raising the possibility that David Amsden doesn’t know what to think of them either. All he can do is tell us all the bad things about his childhood that occur to him. Without context or polish, the book’s material is simply too raw, at times overwhelming—for Amsden as much as for the reader.

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