The November Criminals
By Sam Munson
Doubleday, 240 pages
A good many first novels are rooted in the assumption that a pretentious and self-delighted young mind, turned inside out, will yield intense moments of brilliant illumination. Sam Munson is not so sure. The theme of The November Criminals, his first novel, is that “what we call inner life has no external meaning.” People who take out private matters in public are trying to prove something about themselves—they are artists, they are worth watching—but the narrator of Munson’s straight-edged and candid novel is far more worried about the costs of obsessive self-display to others as well as to himself.
His name is Addison Schacht, “if you can believe it.” A high-school senior in Washington, D.C., he peddles marijuana to wealthy classmates because that is “more challenging than [his] classwork.” No slacker, though, he earned high scores on the SAT (“790 verbal and 630 math”). He is a whiz at Latin with a relish for the Aeneid, which he reads and rereads (“Why the Aeneid? It’s exciting but also difficult to understand”). Although a Jew who now and then attends a Temple of “wispy-voiced Reform,” he is a connoisseur of Holocaust jokes (the purpose of which, he says, is the same as that of any joke: “the infliction of cruelty on the reason-inundated mind”). He is prone to italics (certainty overcomes him, he is impressed by the look a girl shoots him, his history teacher “believes himself to be an inspirer of the youth”). His general attitude toward adults is that they are liars because of their willingness to speak in offensive platitudes, and failures who cannot admit to themselves the total waste of their lives.
If Addison Schacht sounds just a little like Holden Caulfield, the phoniness-sniffing narrator of the late J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, that’s because he is meant to. Early on, Munson, who worked at Commentary as its online editor from 2007 to 2009, acknowledges his debt to American literature’s best-known teenage rebel when Addison explains that his girlfriend Digger (sorry: his associate Digger, a small, jet-haired girl with whom he associates “because one associates with people”) is really named Phoebe, “after that guy’s sister in Catcher in the Rye.” It may not be the harshest thing to say about The November Criminals that it reads at times like a 50-years-later version of Salinger’s book, brought up to date with modish references and slang and transplanted to the nation’s capital (where nearly everyone works for the government and is miserable).
Munson gives his novel a claim to originality by casting it in the form of a college-applicationessay. But this device, which occasionally leads Addison into stiff and awkward apostrophes (“Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve asked me to explain what my best and worst qualities are”), as if he were addressing a jury, is intrusive and unconvincing. The truth is that Munson need not have bothered to dress up his novel’s derivativeness. The November Criminals gains authority from being placed in a literary line of succession that includes Huckleberry Finn in addition to Salinger. The very predictability of certain set pieces and scenes—the brush with violence, the narrator’s self-disgust at his own immorality, the crushing of naïveté—begets the pleasure of anticipation and satisfaction. Three-fourths of the novel’s fun consists of Munson’s unexpected variations on classic themes. The remaining fourth is supplied by the cunning and originality of the prose.
The year is 1999, which puts Addison Schacht smack in Gen-Y, the millennial generation. Indeed, Munson is good at providing insight into his generation’s mental habits (like his narrator, he was born in 1981). They “waste their time. . .talking away all their energy and intention,” because “everything is so undecided”; but also because the moral preening of what they are taught in school leaves them cynical:
We learn, every year, the same tired story, like a long round in a game: the founders were hypocrites, the three-fifths compromise was bad, the Dred Scott decision was bad, Frederick Douglass good, Booker T. Washington bad, Tuskegee experiment bad, Tuskegee Airmen good, Langston Hughes good, jazz good, and we’re all still racists today. Thanks for playing! It’s like this compressed version of American history, one that fails to do justice to all the complex nonsense that people get up to in political life, and also fails completely to convey any real sense of how awful life must have been (and in a lot of ways still is) in America for slaves and their descendants. It’s like a gesture. I don’t know how else to describe it.
In the summer before senior year at John F. Kennedy High, a black student named Kevin Broadus—one of Addison’s fellow students in the Gifted and Talented Program, one of the “six black kids or so” admitted by the teachers to “balm their consciences”—is gunned down along with two other employees at his job in a coffee shop on Wisconsin Avenue. Twelve bullets are pumped into Kevin. The first theory is that he died in an act of gang retaliation. “You had to figure that all the extra bullets in Kevin meant something,” Addison remarks. But within a day or two, that theory is dropped, and the press decides that Kevin’s death is a “senseless tragedy.”
The platitude offends Addison. “It’s not fair that Kevin’s dead,” he says, “and I don’t even know why I think it’s unfair.” He feels a “knock-kneed impulse to find out,” and in order to provide cover for his snooping, he announces that he is undertaking an “oral history project.” “The whole G&T Program has this huge and inexplicable commitment to oral history,” he explains. That he and Kevin were not friends—that he did not even know Kevin very well—only makes Addison more determined toinvestigate.
While delivering marijuana to his customers, he posts flyers around the neighborhood asking for information. When no one calls, he steals Kevin’s academic file from the school office. “Do I even need to tell you it was a colossal disappointment?” Addison asks. “Every expected thing is, because it can’t withstand the inflating power of the human mind.” At a loss, he approaches his dealer, who says that he knows “who did that boy” and passes along the name of Short Mike, a “redneck” who lives in a “meaningless town somewhere in Maryland, the worst state.” Addison gets a number from information and dials up Short Mike. “I know what you did to Kevin,” he mumbles. But he does not consider the possibility that even a redneck living in rural Maryland might have caller ID. Short Mike calls right back. “Schacht, right?” he says, and promises to put Addison in the hospital.
From there, events spin out of control. Short Mike tosses a brick through the front window of the Schacht home (“scared now jewboy” reads the message), and after buying a Glock from his dealer, Addison enlists Digger to track Short Mike down. No one is killed, although a dog dies, but Addison does end up in the hospital, as promised. The novel ends on the requisite note of self-reflection, although the hoped-for lesson in newfound maturity is openly mocked. Addison realizes that Kevin’s death is finally inexplicable, because nothing finally is explicable.“Every human effort expresses so much sententiousness, so much self,” Addison concludes. “And that self is a joke, a cloud, a shadow.” What he learns is what his study of Virgil has been trying to teach him: “human beings cannot direct reality.” They can accomplish great things, but only with “the blessing and assistance of a god.”
“November Criminal,” Addison explains, was the term applied during the interwar years to a German politician who signed the Treaty of Versailles—“someone who, through weakness and disingenuousness, betrayed his country.” Munson’s deeply satisfying first novel is a rebuke to much contemporary American fiction in which external reality is rearranged according to the private obsessions of those who betray reality and themselves without ever becoming aware of their treachery. The November Criminals introduces a different way of thinking about the self and its responsibilities, along with a remarkable new voice in American fiction.