Sophomoric Philosophy, and Bad Crowds

Reading Books While Burping My Baby #8

Discussed in this Essay:
Evil Babies
Dark Teen Novels
Victor David Giron’s Sophomoric Philosophy


Last week, while my wife was out of town, it was my afternoon responsibility to pick up Jackson from daycare. Not a big deal, and don’t worry: I didn’t screw anything up. No frantic after-hours calls that I’d forgotten him there. But one afternoon, when I walked into the playroom and kneeled down to say hello to my son (he was crawling on the floor, of course, and climbing up the side of a giant plastic castle), another baby immediately sprint-crawled over to me, latched onto my knee, and pulled himself up. Then he stood there, hands on my leg for balance, wobbling and staring into my eyes dispassionately.

“Hey there,” I said. I smiled, hoping the baby would return the favor. Jackson, after all, smiles at anyone and everyone; he’s a crowd-pleaser. But this little baby who was now—without invitation—using me to stand? No change in expression. He just stood there, stared at me like he was disappointed in me, like he was so-oooo over my bullshit.

“Um,” I said, “I’m going to, like, move you over here.” I grabbed him (and now he looked pissed, and suddenly I was detecting a hint of the demon-child in him, and I almost lost my nerve) and slid him toward the castle so that he could keep standing, or playing, or whatever, without touching me and without looking at me with those soulless eyes. Also, I immediately grabbed Jackson to get him the hell out of there. Yes, I was frightened for myself, but over the next few days I also started to think: my sweet sweet baby boy is stuck in a room with that demon child all day long?

My son is socializing. He’s entered the world of daycare, and soon enough he’ll enter the world of preschool, kindergarten…and someday, high school. Worlds where parents are far away. Worlds where the day’s amusements are determined by little kids I’ve never even met, and whose parents I probably wouldn’t like. I’ll still get a couple hours a day with Jackson, but that’s nothing compared to the time he’ll spend with all the potential demon-children out there.

Over-active imagination: now I’d drifted from The Omen—a story that’s initially scary but that is also so outlandish that it’s easy to laugh off—to Stand By Me and The Basketball Diaries and Citrus County, highly realistic stories of teenagers doing questionable things, stories of good kids gone bad under the influence of their peers. I was imagining a rogue’s gallery of kids that I wouldn’t want Jackson inviting to his birthday parties.

And, of course, I was thinking once again about The Catcher in the Rye. Don’t forget about that one, Nathan.

See, here’s the thing. As I was reading The Catcher in the Rye for the first time (see my last essay), I couldn’t stop myself from over-thinking the book’s place in our country’s literary landscape—past, present, and future. Maybe this was because it had taken me so long to finally read the book, and maybe this was because I knew it would someday be assigned to my son in his high school English class, but I couldn’t stop myself from asking that popular question we so often ask of our culture’s transcendent movies, books, musical artists, and sports stars: will there ever be another? Will my son get to see another Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods? Will his generation have a Star Wars or Empire Strikes Back? Will there ever be another Kurt Vonnegut or Stephen King? (Sub-question: if he gets these things, will I be a crotchety old man who refuses to acknowledge their greatness, forever arguing that his rock stars would get their asses kicked by Guns N Roses or Pearl Jam? But I digress.) The question at hand: will there ever be another Catcher in the Rye, a book that so deeply resonates with teenagers but also carries serious cache with the literati, the English teachers and professors, the booksellers, everyone? A book that high schoolers love, but that—unlike the average Young Adult novel, or brainless teenager-targeted CGI flick—also resonates with a much wider audience, including the critics who carve out the canon? Is it even possible for some new author to duplicate that sort of success, some new book to ride that wave?

Occasionally, a teenage-themed novel gains a tremendous following and poses as a challenger for a short while (I’m looking at you, Perks of Being a Wallflower), but the energy behind such movements fades. Soon, Perks of Being a Wallflower will disappear, out-dated in a way that The Catcher in the Rye apparently never will be. I’ve read a number of novels and short stories about teenage life that I think are legitimate and raw and as deeply affecting as Salinger, from the ones mentioned above (Citrus County, especially) to Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned and Tender as Hellfire, to Benjamin Percy’s excellent “Refresh, Refresh.” Nick Hornby even manages to craft some damned complicated teenage characters in his novels.

But the more I’ve thought about these books, and the more I’ve catalogued them in my mind…the more I realize how dark are the depictions of teenage life in literature, and how there’s always some truly terrible kids lurking in the margins and waiting to corrupt or hurt the protagonist who must overcome them. Seriously. Just read the plot summary of Citrus County or Nami Mun’s Miles From Nowhere. Or read short stories like this one (link to Good Men Project short story) from David James Poissant. Some twisted stuff.

Which brings me to Victor David Giron’s Sophomoric Philosophy, a literary novel told from the point-of-view of a 30-year-old Chicagoan who reflects upon his professional life and his college years, but who ultimately spends much of the book exploring his suburban high school years. Sophomoric Philosophy is a very different novel than The Catcher in the Rye, and—just as with all the books I listed above—it’s unfair to draw too sharp a comparison, or to expect any book to fill the shadow cast by Salinger, but ultimately Giron’s novel resonates for reasons very similar to what I discussed in my last essay. It’s a “voice book” but also an “empathy book” with real heart. And ultimately, like The Catcher in the Rye, it made me afraid for my son’s teenage years all over again.

Sophomoric Philosophy floats back and forth from narrator Alejandro’s life as a young professional to his years as a youth in the Chicago suburbs. The setting is contemporary, the retrospective moments populated with references to Smashing Pumpkins and MTV and “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” nostalgic memories for readers my age, though they’ll certainly require footnotes whenever Jackson is ready to check out the book (“Dad, what’s a music video? Why would MTV show music videos?”). And although the over-arching theme is not as timeless as The Catcher in the Rye, it’s certainly still universal, and certainly very relevant in our current era where so much attention is paid to getting into college then going to college then graduating before the debt gets too large then getting a job all without ever taking a breath to stop and consider: How did I end up here, as the man I am now? What was it that I actually wanted to be? Can I ever become that person? There’s a confessional feel to the book, a little pissed-off at time wasted, especially evident in this early passage:

I like to say that I am an amateur philosopher. I studied philosophy in college but gave it up in order to major in business so I could make steady money. I say I still practice it, study it on the side, but I haven’t read a real philosophy book in years now. For work, I read boring contracts, analyze prospective transactions of a soulless corporation, and tell my bosses what the right accounting treatment should be. I write research papers, and “manage projects.” No matter how interesting I try to make it sound, how proud my parents are of me, I find it all to be quite miserable. I get paid well, but it’s in return for sacrificing every bit of creativity I might once have had. (14)

Sophomoric Philosophy is the story of a man who wants to rediscover and pursue his true talents and ambitions, but who has been stuck too long in the doldrums of corporate life to know where to begin. Whereas Salinger uses the backdrop of World War II and the post-war period of prosperity / tranquility, Giron uses the early 2000s, those strange years defined by the rise of the HDTV and wireless internet and the big-box store, those cushy years where housing prices were rising and bankers and big-wigs seemed to be tossing money at one another even while—an ocean or two away—soldiers and civilians were dying in two wars, easily ignored. But this isn’t Bonfire of the Vanities; Giron does not intertwine the young man’s conflict with the financial rise, does not craft a tragic fall for Alejandro, does not necessarily set out to say something grand about America. Instead, the “soulless” corporate life simply spurs Alejandro into action and gives him a chance to reflect upon his life, to assess where he is and what he’s become. While early chapters focus upon 30-year-old Alex, the novel soon takes a turn, the voice shifting to first-person retrospective so that we can explore the character’s suburban upbringing and high school and college years: how did he get where he’s at now?

In this way, Sophomoric Philosophy has the feeling of memoir, a “journey of thought” for the character. There is a discontent at the start of the book that provokes him to examine his life to see where it went wrong, or where it could have led had he followed his dreams. It’s this discontent that makes the book feel timely and relevant, a thirty-something corporate angst that makes the title a complement to a number of other late-90s/ early-2000s “I’m through with this shit!” stories, from Office Space and American Beauty to Fight Club and Max Barry’s Company and Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End. Just check out this early passage, which pretty much summarizes the feeling:

Sometimes John and I will talk in terms of us not having accomplished much yet and we’re not satisfied, but mainly because we don’t make more money than we’d like. Besides making more money, sometimes we talk about how we’d like to do something different with our lives other than our boring corporate jobs. (24)

This sort of early-‘30s self-examination is—like the teenage conflict that Salinger explores—nothing brand-new, but each new generation will always treat it a little differently. Sophomoric Philosophy (published in 2010) is likely part of the last wave of books to tackle this feeling in this particular way, before the next generation struggles with a changed world and shifts the focus elsewhere (life post-meltdown? life in the Obama / Tea Party era?).

The conflict is timely, fits neatly into this wider canon, but Giron does not always seem confident in how to make it all work. The early chapters seem to be a feeling-out, unsure exactly where they’re going. In this way, they mirror the narrator’s own confusion: if Alejandro was writing a blog titled “My Stagnant Life,” it would probably look a lot like the first few chapters of Sophomoric Philosophy. The discontent is palpable, but the book doesn’t yet seem active; the only action he takes is…well, reflection. We know what the character wants (or more accurately, doesn’t want), but we don’t see him getting out of the apartment to pursue anything. We rarely go into scene, and we get a lot of “telling” sequences when the narrator reveals the details of his world in prose that feels paraphrased from a Facebook profile:

To get some facts down and out of the way, my name is Alejandro Lopez. I am a 30-something-year-old Latin-American male no longer comfortable saying exactly how old I am. I was born in Chicago to immigrant parents, still live in Chicago, and work as a certified public accountant (“CPA”) for a large corporation. (9)

When John Irving appeared on The Daily Show a few years back to discuss his novel Until I Find You, he made an interesting observation: first-person narration will often produce longer novels than third-person narration, simply because the author must account for how the character knows things, how he/she comes to conclusions and makes decisions, and maybe why he/she is telling the story to begin with. Yes, Giron’s narration does reflect the way that Alejandro would actually tell his story (in fact, Alex probably would write a blog, and if he literally typed out the novel of his life, he would write it exactly like this). But because the author has committed himself so completely to the narrator’s voice and mind, how he processes information and makes decisions and forms opinions, we also get an opening act that feels like it’s revving its engine but not yet driving.

Once Alejandro settles upon an exploration of his high school years, however, the book really takes off. The retrospective narration allows the storytelling to become more active, the reflection intermingling with scene, the momentum building in each individual memory. The following passage depicts a high school prank, a group of boys setting up a garbage can full of piss and trash against a neighbor’s door, then ringing the bell so that when the man opens up, everything spills inside his front hallway:

We were all planning to sit there and watch what happened, but after Tony rang the bell a couple of times and Pat knocked on the door, they started running like hell along the bushes back the way they came…We didn’t see what happened. I remember just running, as fast as I could, pulling ahead of everyone and not even looking back until I turned into Pat’s yard and the side door of the garage that we had left open…

We drove down the street, and nearing the house we started laughing under our breath…I remember having a sick feeling inside as I saw Mr. Olsen standing in front of his house with a robe and slippers on…His gray hair was all disheveled, and he was looking pissed as hell and holding a baseball bat in his one hand, just standing there as if surveying the land to get a sight of the fuckers who did that to his house…

I sort of felt sick in the stomach thinking of Mr. Olsen standing there looking at our car driving by…I felt like a big fucking asshole, I mean, what the fuck? That must have felt like shit to that old man, you know? He had probably been asleep on his recliner watching the news or something and had to put a robe on and open the fucking door, only to have a garbage can full of a bunch of shit come falling down, possibly on him, and onto his floor. (52-53)

What makes Sophomoric Philosophy ultimately a memorable book, and what made me draw the comparison to The Catcher in the Rye, is its unflinching honesty, the empathy bestowed upon the narrator. No, the book doesn’t depict the same sort of lonely narrator that Salinger created in his novel, someone struggling with whether the world is too terrible a place, whether life is worth living. But in moments like the passage above, we see a character struggling in the often-cruel world of high school; we see him folding, making choices he doesn’t really want to make; we see the good and the bad, a fun night with friends darkening into vulnerability and regret.

But most of all, we see destinies determined by the “wrong crowds,” high school kids who meet the same tragic ends as the neighborhood teenagers from the Offspring’s “The Kids Are Alright.” There’s a truly heartbreaking scene in the final chapters of the book, when Alejandro returns to his old suburb and attends the funeral of a bright-eyed former school-mate nicknamed Little Tommy:

In the preceding days, I heard all sorts of stories that he was practically living on the streets, going from place to place, totally hooked on heroin, crack, any drugs he could get his hands on. The night he died, he and his friends were out partying it up, doing coke and other stuff at some bar in Des Plaines where that stuff might as well have been legal. When they got back to his friend’s place, they were too coked up to fall asleep, and so his friend decided they should take some downers to help them. Apparently, the friend left a bottle of strong sleeping pulls on the coffee table next to the couch where Tom was to fall asleep, and in the morning when they found him dead on the couch, the bottle was on the floor, empty. Who knew if Little Tommy killed himself or was just too fucked up to know any better? (362)

Here, it seems that no one has made it out alive. They were all part of a bad crowd, and they all became the people they didn’t want to be. In this way, the book becomes a chronicle of regret and bad choices, a father’s worst nightmare.

But the empathy of the author is admirable. Just the same in The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden Caulfield finally reveals what has been grating him, what he wishes he could do (catch the kids before they run off the cliff and surrender their innocence), the title of Salinger’s book made living by his narrator’s words, we—as readers—swallow deeply and start thinking of the people in our lives that we know care about us, or about whom we are worried. When Alejandro recounts his stories in Sophomoric Philosophy, the feeling for the reader is similar, and for me, it’s all about fatherhood: I don’t want Jackson to go through this. I don’t want him to have these friends. I want him to make the right choices, to never wind up in a world where he regrets the company he’s kept, the people he’s followed. When I pick him up from daycare and he looks up from the floor and smiles at me, I don’t ever want that smile to fade. I don’t want that little demon-child across the room to tell him, “Yo, you don’t have to smile at your dad. Try this. Try looking evil.”

The smile will fade, of course. That’s life. He’ll start walking, and he’ll fall, and it’ll hurt. Someday he won’t want to be tickled, either. He’ll be a teenager. Then he’ll be a twenty-something, a thirty-something. And he’ll be reading books like Philip Roth’s Everyman by that point, and worrying about his old-man Dad, about life and death and mortality and why the Cubs still haven’t won a World Series in my lifetime. Worrying sucks. It really does. And sometimes the darkness of these teenage worlds can be overwhelming. But the alternative, I’ve realized, is a world where books and movies are never honest, where the high school experience is as glossy and plastic as an episode of Saved By the Bell. Maybe the darkness of these teenage lives is essential in order to offer a contrast to the over-perfect worlds depicted in pop culture. And whereas the bubblegum-bright vision of the Disney Channel offers no serious trouble for the characters, nothing that can’t be overcome in thirty short minutes, these dark (but deeply empathetic) books—The Catcher in the Rye and Sophomoric Philosophy and Tender as Hellfire and About a Boy—show life not only as it must seem to many teenagers (difficult, etc.) but also show the hope that we adults know to be lighting the world. This vision is more complex and it’s sometimes painful, yes, but Jackson: in the end, when the world does open up, when you do begin to walk…even after you fall, your smile will be even brighter when you stand again.