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October 27, 2004

No Live Report, But a Strong Recommendation

by Ron Hogan

I left the Outer Boroughs last night with every intention of hearing Stephen Amidon read from Human Capital, but a total shutdown along the B/D/F corridor with just fifteen minutes to get from midtown to Greenwich Village knocked my plans for a loop, so I turned around and kept reading from the novel on the subway ride home. I'm liking it a lot--the fact that it's published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and thus in that FSG typeface is reinforcing my mental associations with the Jonathan Franzen/"lives caught up in the absurdities of capitalist-materialist culture" genre, but I wouldn't peg Amidon as a Franzen imitator by a long shot.

Robin Vidimos underscores the bleakness, but calls the novel "thought-provoking." Ron Charles discusses how you can't easily lump Amidon in with other, lazier satirists of suburbia, because his novel "generates heart-thumping suspense from the crises of ordinary people trying to earn a living and take care of their children. Indeed, it's the awful plausibility of the plot that make this story so tense and involving." Jonathan Yardley also praises the characters as "interesting and sympathetic and very real," adding, "If there's anyone writing about [the suburbs] now with the clarity, insight and honesty that he brings to the task, I'm unaware of it."

Michiko Kakutani is, of course, not so impressed, claiming the novel "never lives up to its Dreiseresque ambition," though she does seem to like it as a "soap-opera-ish" story in the Endless Love vein. (Be forewarned that she reveals the tragic event that sets the downwardly spiraling plot in motion...) The mixed reaction from NYT continued when Deborah Friedell suggested "Amidon has too well demonstrated the superficiality of his characters and their world," implying that the book itself might be just as shallow. Dan Cryer of Newsdayalso felt disappointment in the "workmanlike" prose, noting oddly, "There's not a memorable sentence in the book begging the reader to stop and admire." You know what, though? I consider that a good thing. Cryer says it's because "nothing is allowed to impede breakneck storytelling," but I believe that the novel's straightforward language serves to take the attention away from the author and put it where it belongs: on the story and the characters. And so far, I haven't seen evidence of shallowness--what I've seen is a fiction writer who's confident enough not to bang you over the head with his talking points. Read Human Capital for yourself, and see if you don't agree with me.

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