Boomer1 by Daniel Torday

When attempting to read a novel in which the world described inside closely mirrors the reality outside, it’s easy to react in one of two ways. One: You compare each plot twist with what’s happening in the news headlines and assess the novel’s insight, perspective and relevance. Or, two: You fight the urge to, and sometimes do (sorry), throw the book across the room.

I’ll admit it. Daniel Torday’s latest novel, Boomer1, warrants a little of both.

Let’s start with the mirroring aspect first. As many of us are probably all too aware, these are hyperactive, hypercritical times in America. There’s finger pointing, blame and shame being thrown around every which way. For various reasons people are, in a word, enraged. Boomer1 takes this anxiety-inducing, hot-tempered atmosphere and runs with it whole hog.

The book’s “protagonist” is one 31-year-old Mark Brumfeld, who’s back living in his parents’ basement in Baltimore after a decade of trying and failing to make it in New York in the 2000s. Once an editorial assistant at a prestigious magazine, with a Ph.D. under his belt; the front man for a bluegrass band; and nearly engaged to his bandmate, Cassie (that is, until she ditches him after he pops the question), Mark can’t find a job he’s passionate about nor the opportunity to achieve the success and wealth his parents cultivated.

“They had and they had and they had, as if that was the very condition of [the Baby Boomers’] existence — having, owning, getting, living out Bellow’s I want, I want, I want — while he and his generation had not,” Mark thinks. “They, too, wanted plenty, but they did not have.”

For sure, life hasn’t turned out like Mark planned. But instead of bucking up and finding a less-than-perfect-but-still-professional job, he decides to do what any entitled Millennial might do: whine about his situation on the internet.

With an upside-down Jerry Garcia poster hanging on the wall in the background and a David Crosby mask on his face, Mark records a “Boomer Missive,” in which he demands that Baby Boomers retire so Millennials can take their jobs:

“Earlier this morning I hit a baby boomer in the face. He hit me back,” Mark says, using a voice scrambler. “Now I will hit back again. I will hit back harder. We will all hit back. Resist much, obey little. Propaganda by the deed. Boom, boom.”

As things tend to do these days, the rant quickly goes viral and sparks a nationwide movement. Before long, Boomer2s and Boomer3s are popping up in chat rooms, planning to take their similarly pissed off feelings to the streets, first by hacking AARP.com and other prominent Baby Boomer websites and wreaking havoc, then by vandalizing Boomer celebrities’ homes and iconic Boomer restaurants. (Poor Terry Gross gets a trash can thrown at her production studio; the Moosewood Cafe’s window is shattered by a brick.)

But, ironically, while all this is going on, instead of pushing forward on the front lines, fist high in the air, Mark’s still moping about in the basement. He’s smoking pot and obsessing about why Cassie didn’t marry him. In fact, that’s where he is pretty much the entire second half of the book until the movement gets out of hand and he gets picked up by the FBI as the instigator of “domestic terrorism.”

As for Cassie, she seems to be on the rise. Once a fact-checker for Us Weekly by day and a bassist for a punk band at CBGB’s and the Mercury Lounge by night, she lands a cushy job making six figures as the director of research at RazorWire, a new media startup (think a mashup of BuzzFeed and Gawker). After rocking it for months and alternately sleeping with the company’s content director, she lands an even more successful position at a swank firm in San Francisco. The best part? The pay is triple her previous salary.

Clearly, Mark and Cassie’s trajectories have veered in two different directions.

So, here’s where the aforementioned book throwing comes in. Boomer1 is told from three shifting perspectives: Mark’s, Cassie’s and Julia’s (Mark’s mother). Though more tangential than the others, Julia’s sections about her early days as a professional musician in the heyday of Grateful Dead shows at Fillmore West, and her subsequent adjustment to motherhood, read as the most interesting and sincere.

In contrast, Cassie’s chapters are so dripping with irony and eye-rolling allusions to handlebar mustaches, Warby Parker eyewear and American Apparel T-shirts that it’s hard to get through them without feeling mildly aggravated, even if the references are in jest (and admittedly on point).

Similarly, Mark’s portrayal as a sad sack in his parents’ basement plays too neatly into the stereotypical image of disgruntled worker turned internet wacko whose mother didn’t have a clue about what he was up to.

Haven’t we heard or read this story already? Then again, maybe that’s the point.

In Torday’s first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, a grad student asks the book’s main character if we have “reached a point of saturation with all the first-person accounts” of World War II.

The same type of question could be posed here. Do we need another social satire poking fun of hipsters sporting man buns or internet startups with bocce courts and free kombucha, even if it is a hilariously accurate critique of today’s me-obsessed, hyper-connected, ultra-sensitive society? For this reviewer at least, the answer is probably not. Still, that doesn’t negate Torday’s talent. For all his niggling and nettling, he kind of does hit the nail smack on the head.

 

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle (September 27, 2018)

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