“The Walk to School on the Day After Labor Day
I was sad that summer was over.
But I was happy that it was over for my enemies, too.”
Take a minute and examine your reaction to that quote, one of the shortest pieces (I can’t in good conscience call it a story) in BJ Novak’s collection of short stories. I imagine that your reaction was similar to mine when I first read it – you probably smiled a little, maybe did one of those almost-laughs where you just blow air out your nose, and thought, “Oh, that’s clever” and then immediately forgot about it.
That’s the experience I had reading this book, repeated for several dozen stories. There’s nothing particularly bad about any of the stories, and I giggled a couple of times while reading, but that’s about it. The collection isn’t awful, but it’s nothing special. It’s funny, but a pretentious kind of funny, and it’s clever, but mostly for the sake of cleverness. And most of the stories are not stories so much as they’re half-baked ideas that needed more love and attention. Some of the stories were fun in an absurdist way, like the one about Johnny Depp deciding to crash his motorcycle in front of a Hollywood tour bus, and many of them read like first drafts of a stand-up routine – like “Chris Hansen at the Justin Bieber Concert,” where Hansen explains to his teenage daughter the numerous reasons he can’t go to the concert with her. Others are more like little snippets of larger stories, like “Julie and the Warlord,” where a woman goes on a date with an African warlord and debates ethics with him. This story is a lot more fun if you mentally cast Mindy Kaling as Julie – in fact, I’m ashamed to admit that I spent a lot of the book searching for evidence that proves my long-standing theory that Novak and Kaling are soulmates and need to get married yesterday (in response to the question of whether it’s creepy to ship real people: yes, yes it is).
Mostly though, I spent my reading time thinking about how much better these ideas would be in the hands of another writer. “Sophia,” a story about a man who returns a sex robot after it falls in love with him, could have been masterful in Stephen Millhauser’s hands. Sometimes they just fall flat: “One of These Days, We Have to Do Something About Willie” ended with an emotional gut-punch that didn’t feel earned. And sometimes they feel like they’ve been recycled from somewhere else. “Kellog’s (Or the Last Wholesome Fantasy of the Middle-School Boy)” reads like a script for The Office that got rejected for being too dark.
He’s not great at forming full stories, but Novak excels at sharp humor and realistic portrayals of modern life – at its best, his writing resembles Dorothy Parker and her acidic one-liners, like here:
“The casino looked like a straight person’s attempt to replicate what he thought a gay kid he bullied in high school would have designed.”
“‘Do you have any regrets, Grandpa?’ asked the ten-year-old, solemnly, as if he imagined himself wearing a tie.”
Did you do the blow-air-out-your-nose laugh again? Like I said – that’s about the best you can hope for with this book. Reading it wasn’t a waste of an afternoon, but I’m glad I got it from the library instead of buying it.
As an added bonus, please watch this trailer for One More Thing (because apparently book trailers is a thing now?) featuring BJ Novak and Mindy Kaling and tell me they aren’t totally in love.
Verdict: three out of five stars