Review: Zachary Kocanda on Amateurs, a novel by Dylan Hicks


Amateurs, the sophomore novel by Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter and novelist Dylan Hicks, is about the consequences of shooting for the moon—or at least the New York Times Best Sellers list. A twenty-first-century novel of manners in the Austenian tradition, Amateurs spans the mid-to-late aughts, and after a short prologue, its sections are structured as prenuptial and postnuptial, presented in relation to the wedding of one Archer Bondarenko, a novelist and heir to a sex-toy fortune (jokingly dubbed “the Dildo Scion” in college). Archer, like many of the novel’s characters, is doing well, but not well enough, in his opinion, striving for literary excellence—and same goes for Sara, his assistant, who “couldn’t shake the feeling that she was cleverer than her accomplishments indicated, that she had to do something grand to requite her past mistakes,” seeing herself as overqualified and underpublished. And so, in one of the novel’s subplots, Sara starts to work for Archer, first as a reader, and then, furtively, as the writer of his novels. These characters, all in their thirties, show that we continue to come of age even as we enter our middle-age.

Archer may have top billing (and the most money), but Amateurs’s characterization has a lot in common with the ensembles of Hollywood romantic comedies, the novel centered by the groom-to-be and the who’s-who of his inner (and even outer) circle. He’s why we’re here, and he thinks a lot of himself, but there’s strong competition for the most interesting character in his life. In addition to the aforementioned Sara, there’s John, her ex-boyfriend, who builds bicycles and later works as a live-in caretaker for her grandfather. And then there’s Lucas, Sara’s schlubby classmate from her MFA program who’s always thinking of new business opportunities, including a reusable bag operation named “Brand Nubagian.” Lucas’s ex-girlfriend, Gemma, is marrying Archer, and she calls Karyn, Archer’s cousin, to ask if she can drive her ex to the Winnipeg wedding from Minneapolis, where the two live. Karyn, the oldest and perhaps most removed from the other characters, is arguably the novel’s most compelling character. A divorcée with a white-collar office job, she fondly remembers her stint as a stage actress and starts writing a play as a personal project. Karyn has an eleven-year-old son, Maxwell, and driving to the wedding with Lucas, the trio gives the novel much of its heart, as Lucas goofs off with Maxwell and develops feelings for Karyn. Amateurs’s timeline hops from summer 2011, right before the wedding, all the way back to 2004, and as it slowly builds to Archer and Gemma saying “I do,” it’s a game of seeing how these characters and their relationships change over time, their earnest, postgraduate naiveté turning into, as one character puts it, an honest blurring of “the edge between realism and defeatism.”

Part of the fun of Amateurs is how these oddball personalities interact with one another when they’re in the same room. These are the types of people who catalogue words others use and Google them later, who point out every malapropism midconversation, who use get-togethers to debate the history of masturbation as “a perversion of Enlightenment ideals,” drawing arguments from their own essays and the Bible alike. And their games of one-upmanship, their tête-a-têtes, give the novel a fun repartee, in addition to highlighting Hicks’s ear for dialogue. Archer and Sara are the two most aggressively outspoken, type-A know-it-alls, which complicates their professional and personal relationships, if the line between the two can even be drawn. Sara thinks about the engaged Archer all the time, she admits, adding: “It was like being in love with the pebble in your shoe.”

It’s hard to read Amateurs without thinking of it as a satire of the literary world, poking fun not only at writers (“Of course it was hard to say where a writer’s work ended and where her leisure and procrastination began,” Sara thinks), but even the snobbism of readers, as seen here in Sara’s rationale for reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion on the beach, the epitome Hicks’s writing style with its nuanced, knowledgeable third-person point of view; its wry, long-winded observations; and its on-the-nose (and even laugh-out-loud) figurative language:

The other books she’d brought to the island were more esoteric, though not what you’d call difficult (she didn’t want her beach reads to seem self-satisfied or anhedonic), and she hoped that someone closely observing her would surmise a reader neither endlessly returning, like some cardiganed spinster, to canonical crowd-pleasers, nor unmixedly devoted, like some wallflower rebel, to outré small-press paperbacks, but instead someone at home in many worlds and genres, someone who simply swept up the far-flung books stacked on her nightstand and tossed them in her rollerbag.

With Amateurs, Hicks takes the MFA vs. NYC face-off even further, satirizing the literary elite with the wit of a self-deprecating McSweeney’s article—the type that writers love to share on social media with a mocking mea culpa, every word of their statuses carefully crafted with a posturing laissez-faire air, trying to hide, like the novel’s characters, that whether we’re grad school drop-outs or two-time novelists, in the end, we’re all amateurs.

Amateurs, by Dylan Hicks. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press, May 2016. 288 pages. $16.95, paper.

Zachary Kocanda is a master’s student in creative writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. He has also reviewed for Mid-American Review.

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