Those New York Novels

The Ramblers     Aidan Donnelley Rowley (2016)

(plus brief notes on novels by Adelle Waldman and Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney)

First, a sidebar.

Maybe I should stop reading these inbred New York City novels. Maybe only New Yorkers can sense where the satire starts. But I read a lot of fiction, and I’ve taught fiction to a lot of college students, so I should be able to discern satire, right? Even if I’m a Midwesterner?

I look back at a couple of other New York novels. I’m pretty certain that Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (2013) is sardonically mocking the callous, self-satisfied male New Yorkers who wreak havoc on the psyches of brilliant, sensitive female New Yorkers. Waldman’s view into this world is morbidly fascinating but morbid nonetheless.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest (2016) is less clear on the satire front. Four siblings fight over their inheritance, which has been greatly depleted by a payout to cover up a crime by one of the brothers. Should I care about the quarrels of these disagreeable, money-grubbing characters, even if the plot is a tight one? Am I supposed to care, or am I supposed to recoil in horror?

This issue is not settled, but let’s move on to the main review.

The Ramblers, by Aidan Donnelley Rowley (2016), brings us three more New Yorkers who have too much money and too many drinks. Admittedly, Clio Marsh was born middle class, but she’s pulled herself up by the proverbial bootstraps to earn a PhD in ornithology. And she lives nearly rent-free as roommate to Smith Anderson, a daughter of the 1% who declutters the Manhattan apartments of her private clients. The third profiled character is Tate Pennington, who has accidentally made a fortune in the tech world and retired to New York to take street photographs and escape his estranged wife in California.

All three are in their mid-30s, yet they prate endlessly about their undergraduate days together at Yale and enter into petty squabbles about the relative advantages of Princeton. Really? So you’ve read Foucault. I’m not impressed, though I think that the author, herself a Yalie, expects her readers to be.

Because the three protagonists are in their mid-thirties, they all long to be in committed relationships. This is a standard feature of the modern New York novel, though it’s usually only the women or the gay men who crave a long-lasting, monogamous marriage. The entire plot of The Ramblers revolves around the achievement of perfect domestic partnerships, but I couldn’t feel much sympathy for these three privileged strivers. They’re stock characters in a flat drama. Clio worries that the revelation of her mother’s mental illness and suicide will derail her affair with a wealthy bachelor fifteen years her senior. Smith won’t distance herself from her malicious father, even though this creepy father browbeat her fiancé into breaking up with her. And Tate salves the wounds made by his unfaithful wife with excessive amounts of alcohol, but he still shoots stunning photos.

The dialogue of the thirty-something women in The Ramblers does have sparkle, but when I hit some scenes with older women or with men (older or not), I found myself stopped mid-page by the inaptness of tone and the cliché-ridden sentences. Wait, I thought, is the author satirizing this character? We’re back to that issue of inadvertent satire again.

If I’m so irritated by these self-aggrandizing characters and their $30 bottles of organic hair conditioner, why do I keep reading New York novels? Why did I ever get past page 50 of The Ramblers? Simple: I have a weakness for the New York part.

For instance, the title of The Ramblers refers to an area in Central Park called The Ramble, a semi-wild nature area in the middle of Manhattan, popular for those seeking outdoor gay sex, which has also become a favored site for birdwatchers. The character Clio leads public birding tours through The Ramble on Sunday mornings and gets written up in the local press. Tate, meanwhile, is a walking guide book to the poetic and architectural history of the city, seeking out the haunts of Stanley Kunitz and Dylan Thomas. Smith’s sister gets married in the cavernous, barrel-vaulted St. Bart’s Episcopal Church, with the reception at the ultra-glamorous Waldorf. The action of the novel takes place during the week of Thanksgiving, so the author can call up glorious late autumn days as well as the edge of silver-bell cheeriness for the upcoming Christmas season. In sum, the NYC of The Ramblers is more vividly portrayed than its inhabitants.

True, for heavy New York atmosphere, you can’t beat author Jay McInerney, and I’ve acknowledged this in a recent blog post reviewing his 2016 novel Bright, Precious Days. I detect satire in some of McInerney’s characters, but he fleshes them out so well and surrounds them with so much New York detail that I tumble right into their lives nonetheless.

And for a weekly dose of New York, I turn to the New Yorker. I can imagine myself at the openings of art exhibits and plays listed at the front and then settle in for some serious journalism, not necessarily about New York, by writers like Adam Gopnik, Joan Acocella, Jill Lepore, Hilton Als, Larissa MacFarquhar, Elizabeth Kolbert, Kalefa Sanneh, Jane Mayer, and Ryan Lizza. Gotta love it.