Young Americans (Review)

Since Josh Stallings’ Young Americans seems likely to win a Lefty, I figured I’d better read it. Also, it takes place in the mid-70s, aka "America’s Best Years." Also also, it takes place in the Glam Rock 70s, which was the best part of the 70s. And it’s an Elmore Leonard-style heist novel. What’s not to like?

Well, nothing, really. I mean, I feel a little awkward being a bit of a naysayer about this one, but it’s not really my fault if it’s a smidge overrated. It’s a highly entertaining, well-written book that’s definitely worth your time. Just be warned that the gushing reviews you’ll read of it on the internet should probably have, erm, flowed instead.

Let’s start with what’s right about it – and that’s dialogue. Nobody says anything that feels false in this book. There are two ways that dialogue can be great in a novel: it can be artful on its own terms (Raymond Chandler), or it can be impeccably true to the characters speaking it (William Faulkner). Stallings opts for somewhere in the middle. He’s no Chandler, and he has the good sense to know it, so he doesn’t overdo it. At the same time, he’s not writing a Faulknerian literary character study either. This is just a fun beach read, and he knows we want to laugh along. And we do. It can be a little hard to appreciate just what a good job walking that line he’s done here, but read it closely. The characters are just witty enough to stay inside the lines of plausibility, just deeply written enough to make you care about them without them distracting too much from the story proper. Best of all, he knows just how much to pepper their speech with those unlikely things people say that tell you who they are inside. Everyone says things that are distinctive, but it never really gets quirky or annoying. Stallings is clearly a man who is honest with himself about what his relative strengths and weaknesses are, and at least on this outing he’s just taking an easy jog, not biting off more than he can chew. It’s appreciated.

What’s a little bit less right about it – but still right – is the plot. Sam – our appropriately-androgynously-named heroine – comes from a long line of thieves and is an expert safe-cracker … because her grandfather made her one. But dad gets nicked and sent to the clink, and so she runs off to be by herself for a while and make a stab at living a normal life. Which, given her family background, means stripping. So, she’s working at this club, and she falls for a guy, and her shady boss wants to send the guy on a drug run, but he needs her to vouch for him before he trusts him with that much money. Vouch she does, and disappear he does, and now she’s on the hook for a couple tens of thousands. Therefore, she puts the band back together – plus a few first-timers – to pull of a heist at a disco on New Year’s Eve – making this generally the kind of thing you could totally have seen Tarantino bringing to the big screen about 15 years ago. True to Tarantino/Leonard form, things don’t necessarily go as planned, there are a couple of twists and doublebacks, but thankfully nothing earthshattering. I personally guessed wrong about where it was headed, but I’m not displeased with what actually happened. Where it gets things "a little bit less right" than the dialogue is just how generally implausible it is. We’re just not convinced a gang of high schoolers can pull this off, and the (SPOILER ALERT!) basically happy ending rings really false. There are casualties along the way to be sure, but it doesn’t feel like enough. All along the ride, there’s a nagging voice in your head telling you that Stallings is leaning just a tad too heavy on the crutch that is this book’s sense of fun. If you call him out for plausibility, he’ll just tell you you’re not in the spirit of things. So you don’t. Because he’s right. But what you mutter under your breath is that if he were just a hair better at what he does, you wouldn’t be thinking of calling him out in the first place.

What it gets "wrong" is feminism and setting. And I have to put "wrong" in shock quotes because the author actually is a glitter kid from the 70s. Since I was born only a year before this takes place, I absolutely cannot claim to know better than him what this time was like, least of all what it was like for high schoolers. So where’s that feeling that this rings a little false coming from, if it can’t actually be true that it rings false? Two places, I’d wager. First, it reads a little too much like my own high school world. Everyone says and does things that sound every bit as right for 1992 as they do for 1976. Aside from the cars they drive and the fact that they listen to records rather than tapes and CDs, these kids could’ve been people I graduated with, and I’m not entirely sure what, if anything, to make of that. Maybe there really is nothing to make of it. Maybe 1992 wasn’t so different from 1976. We certainly felt like it was, but it’s also true that the intervening 80s felt more distant than the 70s then – even though we’d just lived through them as kids – so maybe the early 90s really were a 70s retread. Second, he lays on the name-dropping a little thick. One of the things that tips you off quick that someone’s setting is a conceit is when they go out of their way to mention things that are of the time – especially when these are relatively shallow things like pop music and clothing fasions. Stallings supposedly has no need to do that, since he lived through this after all, and yet he does. There are altogether too many mentions of David Bowie and Todd Rundgren. So many that eventually they start to function like literary billboards that say "REMINDER: This story is set in 1976." Why pull amateur gimmicks when you don’t have to? Search me, but pull them Stallings does.

Feminism. Mileage will vary on this one according to political inclination, of course – but Stallings seems to be in the Joss Whedon camp on feminism, and it manifests itself in the same curious way. Namely, none of the male characters in focus are as capable as any of the female characters in focus. There are capable male characters, but they’re always out of the picture, or at least on the sidelines. The chief antagonists are male to a man, but while the band of heroes is gender-mixed, females outnumber males. Indeed, there’s even a Buffy-esque feel to the composition of the group. There’s a female Kirk(/Buffy) in Sam with her "female" Spock(/Willow) sidekick Valentina who form the core of the effective members of the group. Sam’s brother Jay is a bit like Xander, in that he’s along for the ride more because he insists than tat they need him – and yet like Xander he has a way of proving suprisingly effective in oblique ways. The parallels break down there – no idea who Candy (Cordelia?) and Terry (Oz? Tara? … fuck, it’s Tara. Asshole.) are – and it doesn’t matter because none of this was conscious anyway, the point is just that the schtick is the same as Whedon’s. For the characters in focus, the women are all more capable. It’s annoying because we sense that this is done to some political effect, and it feels manipulative in the same way that using "she" as the universal pronoun, as is fashionable these days, does. You feel put upon to be either on board or tricked, leaving those of us who see the ruse but don’t share the politics with nowhere to go.

So, thems the shakes. If you like Elmore Leonard and heist novels, this one is worth your time. But it reads better if you haven’t read one of the reviews from the True Believers ahead of time.

Overall Rating B+

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