Lurking beneath the dazzling political and pop-culture fireworks of Benjamin Taylor’s second novel, The Book of Getting Even, is a vivid tale of American displacement and discovery that could be called a contemporary classic but for one thing: It’s only 166 pages long. No Infinite Jest, this. No Underworld or The Corrections, no Fortress of Solitude or The Emperor’s Children. And yet it feels like an important American novel, epic in everything but size. Could this be part of a burgeoning trend?
Certainly, the last few years have produced enough streamlined runs at greatness—from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Phillip Roth’s late-period masterpiece Everyman—to make one rethink the parameters of the so-called big book. Taylor, the author of two previous books, is no McCarthy or Roth when it comes to name recognition and print runs—his novels are published by a small outfit called Steerforth Press—but I’d argue that this little gem of a novel should earn him equal billing, at least temporarily.
Indeed, it was Roth’s effusive praise—highlighted on both front and back covers—that first drew me to the paperback of The Book of Getting Even (the hardcover came out last year). There are blurbs and there are blurbs, and when Phillip Roth calls a book “among the most original novels I have read in recent years,” it tends to catch the eye. Truth is, I’d heard Taylor’s name tossed around before, at Café Loup, a jazzy Greenwich Village hangout—situated near NYU, the New School and a handful of Flatiron publishing houses—that has for some years now served as the epicenter of Manhattan’s downtown literary scene (such as it is). He’s a real “writer’s writer,” said other writers, wistfully, but since those two words inevitably lead to esoteric debates that highlight the gaps in my literary education, I never inquired further. Perhaps it was a desire to fill those gaps that made me to buy the book. Perhaps it was a love of indie publishing. Probably, it was an unused gift card.
The unique and beautifully rendered plot—which swerves every which way like a concept car on a slick track—is, weirdly, the least important part of this large-themed, character-driven book. The year is 1970 and sixteen-year-old Gabriel Geismar, the only son of a “trolling and savage” New Orleans rabbi, decides he’s had enough of his father’s serial beatings and suffocating worldview. Accepting a scholarship to far-away Swarthmore, he arrives at a campus embroiled in political and cultural upheaval. His unpacking is interrupted by a girl named Mireya, who, taking a seat on Gabriel’s bed, pronounces her fellow students “stooges and running dogs.” Who is she? “Evelyn Mitskie from Shaker Heights, who’d taken ‘Mireya’ as her nom de guerre and carried the banner for billions who were voiceless.” When Gabriel follows her to her room he finds her walls “[bristling] with mottos from Lenin, Ho, Fidel, Frantz Fanon, Herbert Marcuse, Eldridge Cleaver, Bernadine Dohrn.”
Everyone is rebelling against something and Gabriel’s enemy is his past. To defy his father’s orthodoxy he becomes a dedicated student of science. To fuck with him further he embraces his homosexuality. Shy but increasingly self-confident, Gabriel appears destined to negotiate these strange times alone. Then, one night, Marghie and Danny Hundert—two seen-it-all seniors who are also fraternal twins—sit down next to him at dinner. Friendships blossom, romance blooms, and twenty pages later Gabriel Geismar has become a de facto member of the Hundert family—a family, he quickly discovers, that specializes in the “history making business.”
We need look no farther than the ominous epigraph, from William Maxwell’s 1948 novel Time Will Darken It—“The house next door is never the sanctuary it at first appears to be”—to know that Danny and Marghie will somehow alter the course of Gabriel’s life. And yet it is the twins’ father, Gregor Hundert, a Nobel Prize-winning nuclear scientist and co-architect of the Manhattan Project, who provides much of the book’s narrative thrust. For Gregor’s past—thrilling to Gabriel, the budding physicist; maddening to Danny, the unrepentant peacenik; wearisome to Marghie, the sardonic oddball—hangs over the proceedings like an acid raincloud. I won’t delve too much deeper here, except to say that by the end of it, Gabriel can’t help but wonder if perhaps his own family isn’t so crazy after all.
The Book of Getting Even is that rare novel that works as a deeply personal love story, a frothy coming-of-age saga, and a larger generational picaresque. The travails of Gabriel, Danny, and Marghie are so varied and enterprising that Taylor somehow encompasses the entire post-war western world in his sure-handed grip. Looking for a treatise on the Cold War? Classic films? Mathematics? Opera? Anatomy? Astronomy? Gypsies? The New Yorker? Nuclear proliferation? You’ve found the right book.
Somehow it works seamlessly, all this bouncing around, all these themes intersecting, these characters growing up, getting wise, getting even—with fathers, with governments, with history. What comes leaping from these pages is the writing itself, sentence by elegant sentence. Taylor doesn’t write breezy paragraphs; he writes in strong gusts, the kind of sentences you can take out of context and IM to your friends for their strange beauty: “The why of it may forever be too hard, the way arithmetic is too hard for earthworms” or “Here was how marriage ought to be, two on their way, she loving him for dangers he had passed, he loving her that she pitied them” or “On account of earthshoes, Marghie tilted backwards nowadays” or “Where were the boys that knew how to get beyond first person singular?”
This last thought is Marghie’s, but surely the author is winking at us through his fictional curtain. For Benjamin Taylor is one of those boys, and The Book of Getting Even is nothing short of a master class in the freedoms afforded by a close third-person narrative. I do wish the book had been longer (the added bulk would have attracted more critical attention), but at the same time, there’s so much crammed into these slim pages that it feels almost complete. Taylor’s weaving-every-which-way story may not be for everyone, but good literature rarely is. Taylor knows this, too. At one point, Gregor Hundert’s close friend Ned Dunallen, “a fiction editor at a famously high-nosed magazine” clearly written as a proxy for William Maxwell, is described thus:
“Ned had made no more splash than a rose petal dropped down a well. And yet by the lights of the discerning few he, also, was a great writer. As Marghie had recently explained it to Gabriel, there were writers, and writer’s writers, and writer’s writer’s writers. And Dunallen was in this third and presumably final category of rarity. (If there was a writer’s writer’s writer’s writer he hadn’t come to light yet and was in any case too rarified to think about.)”
William Maxwell, the writer, finally emerged from the literary shadows with his own slender late-period masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow. (As an editor, of course, he’d always been a giant). Benjamin Taylor deserves a similar fate, and The Book of Getting Even should set him firmly on his way.