By Marshall Boswell
Delacorte Press, 324 pp., $22
The first we see of Gerald Brinkman, age 30, he's standing outside a church in Atlanta, he's pulling out a cigarette, and he's searching a clear-blue sky. Inside the church, his grad school sweetheart is about to marry a computer whiz, somewhere up above a plane is about to touch down carrying Gerald's father, and on busy Peachtree "chaos is the rule." This is, after all, July 1996, and the Olympic Games start in less than a week. What won't start, however, is Gerald's lighter, and just when he finally gets it going, he hears that the wedding is about to begin. Time, then, for Gerald to toss that unlit cigarette, and, over the course of the next two weeks in Marshall Boswell's entertaining debut novel, Alternative Atlanta, time for Gerald to get things right and toss what he keeps getting all wrong.
Gerald's grad school sweetheart, for example: Gerald does or doesn't love Nora, and Nora does or doesn't love him. Which is it? Neither knows. For another thing, Gerald's "antiself" and "dialectical partner in confusion": his dad in Memphis. Is this dear-old oddball set or not set to die of kidney disease and is Gerald willing or unwilling to do without a kidney? Time (two weeks, to be exact) will tell.
Beyond question, however, is man-on-the-brink Gerald Brinkman, "officially all alone in the Singlehood, a sloppy rent-cheap section of life littered with unused condoms and empty fast-food cartons and haunted everywhere by the hollow promise of pure possibility." The possibility of what? Freedom from workaday drudgery and, on the off-chance, a smidgen of happiness? Escape from family responsibilities and untidy love interests? Or is the greater possibility that Gerald's never graduated into adulthood at all? Even he's not so sure, because he's either too stoned to think about it or too hungover to care.
It's a rotten life, he'll grant you that, what with lighters that don't light and a messy backyard apartment in Atlanta's otherwise upscale, happening neighborhood, Virginia Highlands. It's a halfway-decent rock critic's life, though, working for Alternative Atlanta, the city's free newsweekly. You know the type: a weekly that runs "Tom Tomorrow cartoons, 'News of the Weird,' exhaustive nightclub listings, and men-seeking-men personal ads." But it beats the life of a graduate student in English literature inside a department that's high on theory (and a lot like Emory), a life that Gerald barely tolerated for exactly one year. And it sure beats selling ads after grad school for Alternative Atlanta, a real job, for once, making real money, a job Gerald hated big-time and quit in no time.
Music, in the words of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy: It's been Gerald's "savior"? Or was he "maimed by rock-and-roll"? He can recall, after five years of high school and college French that c'est la vie forms the title of a song by Emerson Lake and Palmer, but that's about all he knows of the language. He can recall as a teenager being dragged to his father's alma mater, Harvard, for a look-see, but what Gerald remembers is buying New Order's Power Corruption and Lies in a Harvard Square record shop (and opting instead to attend Rhodes). But chiefly he recalls what rock's taught him: "Don't sell out, don't overstay your welcome, don't grow up." Plus this: "[T]urn it up and keep it short."
What rock won't, because it can't, teach is what to do with a dying dad who may or may not have killed Gerald's mother in a car accident. What to do with a family friend who may or may not be Gerald's biological father. What to do with Gerald's feelings for Nora, who may or not may be pregnant by her new husband, Brent. Or Gerald's feelings for Sasha, whose husband, Aaron, did know what to do with his feelings for Nora.
On the joys of coupledom and fatherhood a year after a bombing rocks the Olympics and Gerald's world: That's for Gerald to finally find out and for Marshall Boswell, native Memphian and English professor at Rhodes College, in Alternative Atlanta to touchingly describe -- a sound ending to a solid novel that strikes all the right sad to comic chords.
Marshall Boswell reads from and signs copies of Alternative Atlanta at Burke's Book Store on Thursday, February 10th, from 5 to 7 p.m.