Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan
St. Martin’s Press
The best debut novel I’ve read in a long time is Paul Neilan’s “Apathy.” Neilan, a Portland, OR based novelist is wickedly adept at satire. His prose bites without actually tearing flesh or drawing blood. He is Chuck Palahniuk without the hatred. This is not meant to imply the writing is toothless, it is not. Rather, Neilan is able to viciously parody any number of “modern types’ – people we all know trapped in the mundanity of everyday American life – without condescension and with gentleness and compassion.
“Apathy” is about an everyman named Shane who lives a dead-end existence working a job he hates at the Panopticon Insurance Company. He is drunk, lonely and chronically broke. He hooks up with a woman in a bar. Her name is Gwendolyn and she tears him up physically during their sporadic, angry sexual liaisons. She gets him the job at Panopticon which he hates, of course, as much as he hates Gwen and himself.
Did I mention this was one of the funniest books I’ve read in years?
Like Chuck Palahniuk, fellow Oregonian Neilan proffers the most disgusting scenarios imaginable and then exaggerates them so far “over the top” that reactions of laughter and disgust become inseparable. That Neilan’s humor comes across as more gentle should be neither surprising nor taken as petty criticism.
Shane agrees to have sex with his landlord’s wife as a way to pay his rent. The results, needless to say, are hilarious and tragic. Eventually… there is no eventually. Shane remains nihilistic to the end and there is no redemption except laughter.
Which is kind of like real life, I think.