Can we talk about book covers and how they color our reading of the text? We recognize the old saw, "you can't judge a book by its cover," but we are also aware that reading a book that's physically lovely is an especially rewarding experience. And, you can, somewhat, judge a book by its cover if you trust that the publisher has given its product the appropriate look. I bring this up because Boomer1, the excellent new novel by Daniel Torday, has a dreadful dust jacket. Bad colors, bad design. It deserves better.
Now, to the text itself. The story mainly concerns two characters: Mark and Cassie. They are both musicians — this book practically has a soundtrack it is so entwined with making music and listening to music — who play in bands together and apart. Torday namechecks influences from Bill Monroe to Kim Gordon, David Byrne to our homeboy, Alex Chilton. Both eventually have to admit they're not going to make it as musicians and set off on new paths, Cassie as a fact-checker at a magazine called RazorWire, and Mark as the practically accidental leader of an internet movement called Boomer Boomer. Mark's purpose is made manifest in his opening foray; he says, "This is Boomer1 ... and I'm fomenting an open conflict against the Baby Boomers. They've taken our jobs and they've plundered our futures."
Wearing David Crosby masks, members post manifestos on the internet, beginning on YouTube and evolving to "the dark web." This movement, as movements do, goes from manifesto to vandalism to assaults darker and more destructive. That this is all tongue-in-cheek is handled with great authorial control and subtlety. "They were baby boomers," Torday says. "They had and they had and they had, as if that was the very condition of their own existence — having, owning, getting, living out Bellow's I want, I want, I want — while he [Mark] and his generation had not." Some of their targets: Rolling Stone, The Daily Show, Philip Roth, Eddie Bauer, Garrison Keillor, and "The American Association of Tired People."
It seems lost on the millennials that they are declaring war on their elders just as their elders had done. They seem blissfully unaware that, during the '60s, their parents had recommended not trusting anyone over thirty. Torday portrays today's young people as ambitious climbers and, at the same time, ambitious revolutionaries. And their speech is rendered as humorous Newspeak: "The trad stuff was fine back whenever, in the Clinton Era or whatev — but we're obvi moving in a new direction, new revenue streams, the places where journo and content and editorial will all be heading." Or this from one of Mark's proselytizing videos: "Social Insecurity. /I am Boomer1. We are all boomers now. /Resist much, obey little. /Propaganda by the deed. /Boom boom." These revolutionaries seem to live online more fully than they do in the walking-around world.
Torday has some of the witty, neoteric, alternative-now chops of Don DeLillo (whom he also namechecks — the way he namedrops his influences, musical and literary, is charming and droll), but the novel is oddly old-fashioned. It's as if he aimed at DeLillo and hit John Irving (yes, he mentions him also), which is not necessarily a bad thing. Torday's narrative moves like a Clapton solo, fast and sinuous and haunting. And his black-humor story unfolds as naturally as a rainstorm.
Cassie's and Mark's lives entwine, separate, entwine, dovetailing in interesting ways. She writes about the anti-Baby Boomer movement unaware it was begun by her ex-paramour. Cassie is more homosexual than heterosexual, Mark being one of her only affairs with men. Their points of contact are more than arbitrary but not quite the eternal dance of the heart. In the second half of Boomer1, Mark's story tends to swamp Cassie's, though she is never far from what connects them. The ending is a satisfying update on their affair, and on the affairs of the country. This alternative-now is both funny and harrowing, and Torday has one hand on the pulse of contemporary life and one hand throwing up a peace sign.