Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
With all the books being released by young, debut authors, it’s difficult to know who to read, and who to skip. Adam Wilson’s novel Flatscreen makes the choice easy; from the first paragraph, it’s clear that Wilson knows what he’s doing. The opening pages are proof that his well-crafted words will make you alternately laugh and cringe, commanding your attention. Taking place in the suburbs of Boston, Flatscreen is about Eli Scwhartz, a twenty year old loser. Never went to college, still living with his mother, jobless, girlfriendless, Eli’s uniform is an L.L. Bean bathrobe he received on his twelfth birthday. Back then, when he was “a rich Jewish kid,” Eli was happy; his family was wealthy, and his father hadn’t left them yet. Eight years later, unable to get over his parents’ divorce and the social slide from “the grandiose upper-middle class to boring lower-upper middle class,” Eli is a pot-head and pill-popper, love deprived and sex starved, with an affinity for Latinas and a habit of seeing his life in terms of Hollywood movies and television shows.
Seymour Kahn, a once moderately famous, now disabled ex-actor, enters Eli’s life when Kahn’s family buys the Schwartz’s house for its wheel-chair access, and Eli and his mother move into a condo. Kahn becomes a father figure for Eli, who is neglected by his real father; he and Kahn get high together, hire strippers together, and generally sink towards entropy together. “I recognize my own kind,” Kahn tells Eli, but Eli’s biggest fear is ending up as Kahn, debauched and alone, a sharp contrast to his brother, Benjy—a normal, ambitious young man who distances himself from his fuck-up brother, and with good reason. Eli is on a downward spiral, heading toward a breakdown, bumbling along in his bathrobe, getting black-eyes from husbands and boyfriends whose women he fucks or flirts with, getting taken to the hospital by police and paramedics after passing out in the end-zone of his high-school football field—his Viagra-induced boner nearly landing him with charges of indecent exposure—and getting shot in the leg when, in drug-induced delirium, he breaks into to his old house.
Though Wilson clearly intends Eli to be pathetic, we also sympathize with him. Eli’s laziness may arise from existential despair. His drug addictions could be to fill the void left by our spiritually-depraved culture: “Our mezuzah was still the doorway. A relic, not just from my old family, but from an old world where God existed.” Eli is sensitive (he cries numerous times throughout the novel), and loves to cook; all he needs is a woman to cook for. He understands that “everyone just needs someone to make them feel like death isn’t a better option.” He isn’t motivated to get a job because he is aware, in theory, that his dad is rich and could give him money, though he also is aware, in fact, his dad is no longer giving him money and that he needs to get a job because he has no cash. Though the book focuses so much on Eli that the other characters never get past playing supporting roles, Wilson avoids the usually monotony of first person coming-of-age novels (I did this, I did that) by his pared writing style; he drops pronouns and prepositions: “Rolled the illest joint I could manage. Kahn handed me my own giant crystal goblet.”
Besides the laugh-out loud passages or innovations of linguistic style (“hair assholically gelled”), Flatscreen encompasses more than just Eli’s descent towards rock-bottom and his attempts to “get his shit together.” Wilson hints the novel addresses the decline of American civilization: “Was it true I’d missed the party? I’d heard a professor on NPR’s On Point talking decline of the empire. Romans and Greeks had their fun, look what happened. This was it for us: reality TV, virtual reality, planes into buildings.”
It’s not too hard to image the American people symbolized by Eli; dressed in a bathrobe, living off the fruits of our parents’ labor, and aware that before we can rise again, we have nowhere to go but down.