THE LONG HAUL
Amanda Stern, . . Soft Skull, $12 (128pp) ISBN 978-1-932360-06-6
Stern's slim debut, centered on the tumultuous six-year affair between a needy, self-absorbed young musician referred to only as "the Alcoholic," and the unnamed, enabling narrator, paints a rich picture of mid-1990s undergraduate and postcollege anomie. Details of the Gen-X experience—drinking at dive bars; going to rock shows attended by a "United Nations" of "fraternity brothers, sorority sisters, punks, skater kids, techno freaks"—are cleanly rendered, and Stern's tone is a spot-on mix of nostalgia, sympathy and ennui. The story begins with the Alcoholic, a locally successful musician, self-destructing on stage at the unnamed college he and the narrator attend in upstate New York, a victim of his own drunken melodrama. The narrator blames herself—as she will continue to do throughout the novel—convinced that her fib about a former love caused his meltdown. Her slow slide into a depression caused by the Alcoholic's superficial, controlling love, and the Alcoholic's overwhelming need for validation are the forces that drive the narrative. Juxtaposing the couple's life upstate with their later days in New York City, Stern shows the dysfunctional relationship in its moments of light (the first blush of affection; an ill-conceived nighttime quest for a corkscrew) and darkness (fighting; a miscarriage; an attempted rape). Though the narrator is sometimes frustratingly passive, she is also articulate and skillful at telling her own sharp, dark coming-of-age story.
Reviewed on: 10/20/2003