Best Behavior is the latest novel from Noah Cicero, an author who has published a couple of books with mostly small and independent presses. He seems to confess, in this heavily autobiographical work, that his writings will probably never be mainstream. The main character is one of the many Americans who have to work to pay the rent because his writing will never be enough. This is a main theme of Best Behavior, a jaded narrative about writing, working, and the American way.
Cicero presents a comparison between two very different American areas. The first is Youngstown, Ohio, a town not quite big enough to be a city, barely outside the western Pennsylvania line. The other is New York City, the core of writing and the arts. A David-and-Goliath parallel commences as the main character (part-time writer, full-time bitter young man) travels from poverty-stricken Youngstown to the glitz and glamour of New York to pursue possible writing opportunities. Here, the young man does pretty much what he did back home: embroils himself with other despicable characters and indulges in alcohol and meaningless sex while writing his actions off as the product of societyís failings.
Those social criticisms present themselves mostly through random outbursts of commentary. A rant about cell phones here, a rant about politics and education there, a rant about everything on every other page. The explicit social commentary distracts from what could be implied inherently. The story would be stronger if the observations were toned down and placed into context. Instead, they distract from the narrative.
Distractions already abound as the story is not very plot-driven. The trip to New York provides a cohesion that holds the story together. Since itís told in the observational style, the first-person narration gives the reader insight to how the narrator thinks and feels, but instead of providing well-written descriptions, the narrator seems too bitter to tell a good story. This makes the tale seem like a bunch of meaningless events, which in a way highlights the storyís themeóthat everything is meaningless.
A true strength of the narrative, though, is Ciceroís ability to capture peopleís desperation and put it into words. Ciceroís description of Youngstown, Ohio, and the surrounding areas is not likely to encourage tourism and is likely to offend some, but his writing is remarkably honest (even if it is to a fault). In one of the better moments of the novel, Cicero has his main character resenting two New York City characters who look down on his job back home, highlighting the continual class difference in America. The effects of economic depression and American disillusionment are described so well that readers will feel the desperation creep up on them no matter where they are from.
Regardless of their origins, every generation has its youth, and Best Behavior smacks of yet another counter-culture novel that questions the values of the generation before. This isnít necessarily unjustified, but it is unoriginal. In one of many scenes name-dropping great writers, the main character talks of how he differs from Kerouac and Bukowski and doesnít think he could live as they did. The purpose of this seems to be twofold: to emphasize that Cicero is a different author forging his own literary identity, and to comment on society as it relates to the writers each generation produces. The attempt fails in the former and succeeds in the latter, but either way it doesnít do much to further the events of the novel.
The main characterís generation is disillusioned and bitter, seemingly empty. This really isnít anything new. The main character and his fellow writing hopefuls may be nothing but another generation of disenfranchised youth or they may be the next generation of literary greats; either way time will tell. It is this speck of hope that shines through what may or may not be justified hopelessness, depending on the reader. Itís also this which saves the novel from being nothing but a trashy series of events between two covers.