American Spirit by Dan Kennedy: A Conflict-of-Interest Review

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I have admired Dan Kennedy’s writing for years. “New Riddles for Five-Ounce Dixie Cups” and “Sound Check at the Central Park Open Mic Poetry Reading” may be brief, and more than a decade old, but they are among my favorite pieces on McSweeney’s, right up there with “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers” and professional literary agent John Hodgman’s letters to his cousin Josh. “Listen to this,” I kept saying, as I read my girlfriend passages from Loser Goes First, Kennedy’s hilarious memoir about his meandering search for a career. Kennedy’s second memoir, Rock On: An Office Power Ballad, in which he reels off, Steve Almond-style, stories from his life in the marketing department of a major record label, was just as good.

So when I heard that Kennedy had written a novel, American Spirit, I had the reaction any longtime fan would have to the news: I wanted to review it for The Rumpus.

I had the usual reasons. I wanted to examine Kennedy’s leap to novel writing. Like every book reviewer, I had a dream of starting a public conversation about a work of literature. Also, I wanted the free copy you sometimes get from the publisher when you write a book review.

Then I remembered that Kennedy and I are friends. I least I think we’re friends. We’ve definitely crossed paths on the Internet from time to time. Once, I wrote him a fan e-mail asking for advice, and he told me about the time he posed a similar question to Al Franken. I think he might have retweeted me on Twitter once or twice. We also wrote three companion pieces for the Monkeybicycle website, in which Kennedy pretended to be a poet and I pretended to be a literary critic reviewing his work.

Given that history, a review of his first novel seemed like the logical next step. But I wondered: Did my internet friendship with Kennedy count as some kind of book review conflict of interest? Could I be honest about Kennedy’s book and still hope to become better friends with him, perhaps meeting him for lunch someday in New York, or hanging out with him backstage when he’s hosting the Moth? On the other hand, my review would be read by thousands of Rumpus readers, or at least hundreds of Rumpus readers, or at least my Facebook friends. Didn’t I owe them something, too?

In the end, two things convinced me to write this review. First, I remembered that, just as in the legal profession, conflicts are allowed in Rumpus book reviews as long as you disclose them. If Katie Crouch can review the debut novel of her ex-lover Jonathan Segura, then I, a fan of Dan Kennedy, ought to be allowed to review his first novel. If anything, the fact that Kennedy and I have never dated, much less spoken, should make this review less controversial, and easier to write.

Second, I started reading Kennedy’s book, which started out a little slow, to be honest, but soon gained speed, becoming more and more enchanting until, in the scenes in the Hollywood Hills and at Yellowstone National Park, it had me fully in its grip and a happy realization dawned on me: I wouldn’t have to lie. Or risk alienating a successful New York writer who could one day (who knows?) maybe get me backstage at the Moth. My problem was solved. American Spirit is offbeat, original, and cool. Kennedy has written a weird and darkly comic novel that is a worthy sequel to his earlier work and is truly enjoyable to read.

What’s it about?

When we meet Matthew, a forty-something, newly unemployed New York media executive, he is day-drunk in a gas station men’s room, staring at the mirror and trying to pull himself together. He’s been fired from his job, received an unexplained, ominous medical diagnosis, and has spent the day piloting his BMW around his Connecticut suburb. He has lately grown apart from his wife, who glides like a shadow through their home.

From that gas station men’s room Matthew will rush headlong into a string of escapades he hopes will save him, dutifully carrying a copy of Eat Pray Love as if it were a bible. His odyssey culminates in a spiritual epiphany in Yellowstone featuring ominous portents in the Wyoming (or Montana, or Idaho, maybe) sky, a rock bluff, and a pair of road flares in a paper bag. By the time it’s over, Matthew will have traveled the world of find the courage to jump-start his life.

Dan Kennedy (photo by Maria LIlja)

Dan Kennedy (photo by Maria LIlja)

American Spirit may cover familiar “Great American Novel” territory (mid-life existential crisis of a suburban Connecticut executive: check; alcohol-fueled odyssey of personal redemption: check; spiritual reawakening after exotic global travel and movie-quality sex in the Downtown L.A. Standard: check) but Kennedy’s narrative is inspired in several ways that bring Matthew’s story alive, and that make American Spirit enthralling and fun.

First, Matthew is an engaging, and even a fascinating, character. He is a funnier and darker Don Draper — Don Draper if Don Draper thought his existential crisis could be solved by buying a gun. The turns he takes on his journey are surprising, and often hilarious, but they also feel dramatically true. His fist fight with his yoga instructor, for example, is as comic as it is desperate. He enrolls in a pottery class at a community center and begins making and selling coffee mugs with stick-figure drawings and the slogan, “God will help you find a gun if you’re grateful.” When all else fails, he drives to Yellowstone. I grew to like Matthew, followed his improbable journey with interest, and was sorry to see it end.

American Spirit is also fun because so many scenes feature such vivid, pinpoint observations. Here is Matthew, for example, checking into his room at the Downtown L.A. Standard:

Upstairs, the room is physically modern and sparse and emotionally very similar to the lonely pornography that comes from this side of the nation; which is to say that after one walks past the glass wall to the room’s shower and imagines the ghosts of travelers past, after the small baggage hits the bed, one simply sits in a hard, plastic urbane chair in front of a long, skinny bureau staring out at downtown Los Angeles, feeling equal parts aroused and ready to be drained and instantly done with the experience.

I’ve checked into the Downtown L.A. Standard. That is exactly what it is like. Kennedy’s description of a party in the Hollywood hills distills the glamour and sad underside of celebrity, just as his description of Matthew’s flight from Tokyo to San Francisco captures the lonely, peaceful limbo of trans-continental travel.

But the real engine of American Spirit is Kennedy’s narrative voice. That voice narrates Matthew’s story in limited third person, but sometimes steps back to describe Matthew’s mental states objectively, so that even the space inside his skull feels emotionally removed. The technique effectively portrays the circumstances in which Matthew is trapped and his yearning to break away from them. At the same time, the novel’s voice sounds like a force guiding Matthew from just beyond his understanding. It also has style to burn. It is funny, swift, poetic, and sad. I wanted to keep listening to the odd tale it spins about a lost man trying to pull himself together.

As I said, I was predisposed to like this novel. But I have to admit that, while I ended up loving American Spirit, it might not be to every reader’s liking. The narrative voice, for example, that puts an emotional distance between Matthew and his own experience sometimes renders the action in the story less immediate. I didn’t mind the trade-off, but it might not be every reader’s cup of tea. There’s also the fact that Matthew starts out at rock bottom, but we never learn the full story of how he got there. I didn’t mind this, and in fact I thought the story worked because Kennedy took its premises so completely for granted. Matthew has been fired, his marriage has broken down, he’s in pain, and he’s trying to save himself. That’s the situation. But some readers might want to know more about the events that brought Matthew to his men’s room reckoning in that Connecticut suburb.

But, as I said, by around page 40 I was hooked, and happy to sign up for Matthew’s alcohol-and-frequent-flyer-mile-fueled odyssey of pain and mid-life reawakening. The journey ends with Matthew crossing back over the Pacific, in the cabin of a jetliner bound for New York, where a new girlfriend, Tatiana, and an unlikely commercial empire built on post-ironic ceramic goods awaits him. Matthew’s journey has left him exhausted and renewed. “Men have stared at the moon and figured a way up,” Kennedy writes,

And pilots sit in the nose of these planes, steel and fuel and fire, seven or eight miles above the Pacific all night, and they touch down soft as angels without incident every day! Tatiana is somewhere up ahead, a thousand miles off the nose of this thing tonight, maybe even smiling.

“Maybe it’s not so hard,” Matthew thinks, “to have a little faith.”

Sean Carman has contributed to four McSweeney's humor anthologies, and has been a contestant in Literary Death Match, a finalist in NPR's Three-Minute Fiction Contest, and a winner of The New Yorker's weekly Twitter contest. His story "A Hard Rain. A Really, Really Hard Rain" was a runner-up in the Out of the Storm News Bad Writing About the Weather Contest. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works as an environmental lawyer. More from this author →