In an all-American tale, Gint Aras takes a gritty look at change, love, life, and who and what we are.
Warning: for readers who bristle with fury at the slightest detection of grammatical leniency, this book is not for you. If you think that slang is the devil’s tongue, and that people who consistently muddle the words “there”, “their”, and “they’re” commit heresy, you might want to sit this one out because, in the tradition of James Kelman, Anthony Burgess, and Junot Diaz, Gint Aras’s protagonist speaks in anything but standard English. However, since Kelman, Burgess, and Diaz haven’t had trouble finding fans (Kelman won a Booker Prize, Diaz a Pulitzer), Aras can rest assured that his dialect-heavy novel will likely fall on appreciative ears.
The novel unfolds from the perspective of Andrew Nowak, a young man who probably failed almost ever English class he was ever forced to attend—given his vernacular. There is, however, an endearing quality to the misspelled ramblings and hackneyed phrases. For readers who appreciate the vehicle of language and understand that, like Malcolm X wrote in his “A Homemade Education”, it allows a person to be truly free in the world, the writing rings so true that it’s misfortunes are devastating. This is because, above all else, Andrew Nowak is looking for a way to express himself that is just barely out of reach.
The novel begins at an end of sorts—Andrew is reminiscing on traumatic, as well as jovial, events that happened in his life via a notebook, or diary entries. He is wary of this endeavor, and doesn’t quite trust the possible outcomes. He understands that “when you start writin’ down a story from your life, it totally makes you sort shit out.” While Andy is interested in understanding himself, he is also ultra cognizant of his potential readers, and writes things like “Unless you live around there, probably you never even heard of Berwyn fickin’ Illinois. Cauze there’s people from Chicago who never even heard of it, though on sunny days you can see the Sears Tower clean off Ogden Avenue.” What he lacks in linguistic skills he makes up for with humor. Andy astutely points out that “If you lost your beer gut, probably someone in Berwyn picked it up and never even noticed.”
Aras builds a multi-layered character whose inadequacies are just as visible as his dreams, and this speaks to the authentic representation of Midwestern, poverty-stricken America: you might not be able to string a bunch of successful sentences together, but you sure as hell are aware of not only your own flaws, but everyone else’s. Andrew’s depiction of the town in which he grew up, the aforementioned Berwyn, is as follows: “[It] has some nice streets with good houses, though also the town is trashy, like corner bars and train tracks and dudes walkin’ around with their jeans fallin’ down.” This is a description of a specific place, but also a description of anyplace, America, that struggles to define itself. In areas similar to where Andy, and by extension Aras, grew up there are endless stories of the alcoholic mother (Andy’s), the drug addicted sister (Andy’s), and the high school dropout/graduate whose pool of opportunity is limited to working at the local Buona Beef (where Andy worked) in order to help the family get by.
Andy eventually makes it out of his situation and environment, only to return and find that even though he has changed, the world around him hasn’t. This creates the urge to classify this novel as a coming of age story, to label Andy a misunderstood hero, his life a tragic bildungsroman. But the novel resists such simplistic categorization; instead, questions emerge – what has to be discovered, and uncovered, in one’s life in order to signal concrete change?
Not that Andy is self-aware enough to know that he needs significant changes in his life. As far as he’s concerned, he’s going to “go with the flow”. The catalyst for this proverbial flow is a woman named Audra. Before the reader gets a glimpse into Audra, and why Andy is obsessed with her, Aras wisely illustrates the other women in Andy’s life. His relationship with his family, which consists of all women (his grandmother, mother, and sister), is strained at best, catastrophic at worst. Aras clearly demonstrates to the reader that Andy is at a loss when it comes to women, because the women in his life have not provided him with necessary tools for healthy relationships. Then enters Audra: independent, assertive, beautiful, and rich—all characteristics that Andy cannot fathom in a person, much less in a woman. She tells him to come home with her, and he does. She tells him to perform sexually, and he does. With Audra, he does not need to have direction, but instead follows instructions. They develop a relationship that ends abruptly when Audra travels back to Lithuania, her country of birth. Now directionless, what does Andy do? The only thing someone in Andy’s lackluster situation can do: he follows her.
The real meat of the novel happens in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Here Aras unravels the workings of Audra, and forces Andy to deal with problems that would test any sane person. Audra is not as strong as she first seemed, and this requires Andy to confront himself in a way that is frightening. While Andy has a lot to lose, he also gains some irreplaceable items (among them being a wife and a dog).
These lessons about self are at the heart of Aras’s novel. Andy has learned some things, of course, but has he learned enough? Can he see the bigger picture in a way that is meaningful in his life, or is his perspective still distorted to only encompass the immediate? Reflecting on his life, Andy writes that after all of his travails, he considers himself more “hardcore, kinda proud since…this showed [he] changed real different. Stronger now with some good courage.” But Aras is a realist, if nothing else, and so even in retrospect Andy is wrong. In the last chapter, Andy kills a spider by crushing it with his hand. The spider, however, manages to bite his hand and cause Andy a great deal of pain. From this experience, Andy asks “How come I would get pissed off like that? And why would I take out my stupid feelings on something so small?” And so Aras leaves the reader wondering: do we really ever know why we do what we do, and can we escape our trappings if our own language fails us?
—Photo Rhys Asplundh/Flickr