by Kyle Smith
Published by William Morrow
352 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Edward Champion
First novelists are expected to write what they know. So it's no real surprise that Kyle Smith, a redheaded thirtysomething editor for People, has served up a novel about a redheaded thirtysomething editor for a tabloid newspaper.
Love Monkey, with its numbered lists and male neuroses, plays like Nick Hornby's High Fidelity cross-pollinated with Toby Young's memoir, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. In fact, we're not even four pages in before Smith explicitly references Hornby. But while Smith tarnishes Hornby's pleasantries by making his protagonist more hubristic, his character isn't as willing as Young was to confess his inadequacies.
Tom Farrell is 32, a self-described Manhattan "manboy" who philosophizes about Bugs Bunny and worships Gloria Grahame. But for all his purported complaints, Farrell's not that bad off. He has a job and a sizable advance for a novel that remains curiously unmentioned after the first chapter.
Smith's observations, particularly in the first hundred pages, are often shrewd and humorous. Smith riffs on "the B-1 bomb" (the boyfriend status revealed after hours of conversation) and how tongue-tied strangers resort to talking about the weather. The image of a dusty bra beneath a couch, with Tom having no memory of how it got there, serves as equally valid observation and metaphor. As does Tom showing his dates his baby photos just before running past third base -- all part of a shady regular routine. And one chapter involving a Bread song playing in a "bachelor aisle" at a supermarket stands against Hornby for multilayered inventiveness.
But Love Monkey has one primary problem: Tom's only apparent motivation involves lusting after a recent Manhattan transplant named Julia. That's a slim premise to hang a 300-page novel on, particularly when Julia comes off as a laughing, head-nodding prop rather than flesh and bone. Smith describes Julia as a girl that "looks amazing" or has "hair like summer and a voice like 3 AM." That kind of dimebag description may have worked for Mickey Spillane, but it detracts from Smith's strengths as an observer. It's almost as if Smith's trying to create a Y-chromosome counterpart to chick lit.
Smith is too fond of objectifying his women. Not only does this approach date the book in a way that recalls Eric Weber's literary staying power, but it works against providing dimensional muesli to keep us hooked. Tom may be "endlessly impressed by a girl who knows grammar," but it's only because the "girl" knows the difference between a simile and a metaphor. Not exactly Mensa. Tom goes out of his way to initial cap masculine fears ("Women Who Are Guilt Tripping" and "The Obligatory Lesbian Affair") that are predicated upon junior high school locker room banter. That may be part of the point, but Tom seems to be attracted to Julia only because she's ten years younger, smokes, and has a sultry "$3.95 a minute" voice. In Tom's own words, "Although I hate cigarettes, I love to light up pretty girls. Because." When Julia reveals her boyfriend Duane, Tom dwells on his lisp and appearance, but fails to reveal any weaknesses of his own.
There's also a noticeable contempt for the downtrodden which feels as if it extends beyond the first-person voice. The questionable age of a "Vietnam vet" may be appropriate fodder, but terrorizing a Kmart employee (followed by Julia purring, "That was so cool") comes across as unnecessary bullying. And Smith passes up a great comic opportunity to have Tom appear a fool when his protagonist is talking with a construction worker in a bar. Instead of revealing the blue-collar ruffian as someone more levelheaded than Tom, Smith segues into an unfunny dialectic between Tom and his penis.
To his credit, Smith does capture the newspaper environment well, with the mad rushes, the apoplectic heds, the endless sustenance of take-out food, and the peripatetic writers hovering around editor cubes. But dwelling upon peripheral characters like Rollo Thrash, a slacker journalist whose reviews aren't so much edited but rewritten from the ground up, or Shooter, a rich, testosterone-charged "personal adviser," tell us little about Tom. Outside of brief references to a London newspaper, we never learn how or why Tom got into journalism. Or, for that matter, why would a man who prides himself on avoiding the New Yorker and not reading Hemingway ever be interested in the newspaper world?
Smith's prose is a simile-heavy tundra, relying upon cultural references and lexical blending ("alcohole," "Banana Republican"). If it succeeds in its hack vernacular, it fails to offer any masculine insights for the curious. "Nobody wants to look like what he actually is" is about as candid as it gets. And with Hornby's shadow booming down, weighing in on Coldplay's "Yellow" and resorting to "stacks of CDs" as apartment décor detract from the novel's insouciance.
The gaffe, whether Tom's regular screwups or the book's repeated references to Jesse Jackson's infamous 1984 remark about New York, is in full force here. A late-minute side trip into September 11 Manhattan comes off as a deus ex machina. And it all despoils a debut that could have dished more dirt than the tabloid world it was inspired from. | March 2004
Edward Champion is a writer in San Francisco. His satirical riffs on books can be experienced at his blog, Return of the Reluctant. He is currently prepping his play, "Wrestling an Alligator," for the San Francisco Fringe Festival.