Ever need to revisit a time in your life that lives just out of the edge of imagination, in the haze of half-recalled images, song lyrics with ellipses at each end, and fragrances that blend together like the Tempera paint of out-of-control kindergarteners? You know the one – you are trying to tell the story to yourself and remember that it was more than the classes you cut, or job you lost, or the girl who dumped you? Several strategies come to mind, and fortunately for me, as a novelist and a book reviewer, most of them involve story-telling.
The Pursuit of Cool, a new novel by Robb Skidmore(TMIK Press, 2012), could be counted as a coming-of-age story about three kids who bond as suite mates as freshmen in college. By the same logic, you would call The Grapes of Wrath a travel journal. The place of the novel is AnyPrepTown, USA, but the time? It is SO ‘80’s, SO Reagan, SO age of greed, and SO tinged with the dissatisfaction that living a life dictated by what your image should be rather than who you are that it just might define the decade.
You remember the ‘80’s, right? Remember those big-hair rock-pop bands that MTV sold us? I thought so. But do you remember all the alt-music that came from bands with names like Siouxsie and the Banshees or the lyrical but almost painfully dark Bauhaus? No, I thought you might have forgotten them. I began the novel riding on memory lane, in that happy storytelling mode of “Oh, yeah, I remember where I was when I heard that.” At first, I found myself hating but envying the beach-bum gorgeous Ian Lacoss, identifying with the brilliant but socially maladroit Charles Boyd, and riding the narrative wave with the inner monologue of lead protagonist Lance Rally as they make their way through their first years of collegiate liberation from parental control. Soon, however, I was buried under the cultural references. I found that it was easier to read The Pursuit of Cool with my computer open, Goodsearch.com on one tab and Youtube on another, in order to do quick lookups. In fact, the book owns “cool:” defining it, bringing it into your eyes, ears, and even your nose, and piercing you with it if you allow.
The narrator hovers over Lance like a thought translator who has a point-of view only slightly more in-the-know than Lance himself. I am reminded of the role of Nick Calloway from The Great Gatsby. Nick’s “truth” about Gatsby changes – he assets that Gatsby is a landed scion one moment and a self-made man in another – based on Calloway’s own evolving sense of reality. Lance asserts, through his narrator, an evolving sense of reality that shows a young man totally unprepared to confront a life that offers him his own independent choices. Through the first two-plus years of his college career, every interaction is about what his image is. This obsession with looking suave, sexy, caring, sympathetic, resilient – in a word, “cool” – is Lance’s way of confronting girls, friends, classes, alcohol, everything. Since his family gave him only one option of how to be in college – high GPA, Honors/Awards, Internships and all those other prerequisites to the Top 10 MBA, it is not surprising that Lance is left to his own devices when his path veers off the Gordon Gekko indenture.
Weighing in at 410 pages, The Pursuit of Cool did get slow for me by around page 300, because this is not a plot-driven novel. In fact, by following the three boys becoming men and reacting to growing up with all things Reagan, the book is a long essay on the nature of “cool,” and whether such a thing is really attainable after all. For me, the essay was too long. I would have preferred to part with some of the exhaustive, encyclopedic cultural references in order to get to the point: how do the three characters deal with the disillusionment of trying to live someone else’s life? That having been said, Skidmore does a commendable job at underscoring the existential question of an important period of American history through the prism of the coming-of-age novel.