You remember him - that guy from high school. He sat in the front row in every class, waved his hand wildly to answer, and then made everyone cringe with some outrageously obscure tangent that was not only hard to follow, but embarrassing to listen to. That guy -- so un-self aware that he made the rest of you self-conscious. That guy
-- who every once in a while would hit on something brilliant in the midst of his long, strange rant. For all his shortcomings, That Guy had promise. He just hadn't quite mastered the art of the laid-back approach.
If That Guy were a book, he would be Generation Oz, Kirk Eggleston's slacker-over-the-rainbow novel. Protagonist Brad Cunningham is most certainly not the embodiment of That Guy (that honor goes to the stilted tone and forced metaphors that pepper this post-coming of age tale). In fact, Brad probably doesn't remember That Guy; he was either too stoned or too indifferent to notice. Brad is the embodiment of every Baby Boomer complaint about young people today: slovenly, lazy, uncaring, a middling Princeton grad still living off daddy's purse. One year out of college and dumped by his girlfriend, Brad takes off on a cross-country odyssey after inheriting his recently deceased grandfather's car. The journey, which loosely traces Dorothy's ruby slippers, finally brings Brad to realize there's no place like home. But it takes a few near-death experiences, a night with a Mormon tabernacle and a drunken night in Las Vegas to lead him there. See how many of the amusing modernist Oz parallels you can spot along the way.
Let's get one thing straight: Kirk Eggleston can most certainly write. He lays it on too thick at times, with a young writer's affinity for adjective and overwrought description. But he has his That Guy moments of brilliance, too. Whether it's a turn of phrase as simple as "just a smear of road" or a clever rant about JELL-O(r), Eggleston earns his pen plume. Yet he's fighting hard against two shortcomings -- his penchant for the outrageous that actually reads awkwardly (such as swearing for swearing's sake, or the contrived use of song lyrics to narrate the story) and a narrator who the reader cannot respect, much less like.
Perhaps there are people like Brad in this world, so callous, so bitter, so gratingly ungrateful that they drive everyone away with their pretentious Nirvana worship and greasy ponytails. Perhaps Eggleston is writing from that experience. Still, the literary character needs to be softened, or at least better explained, when he makes the jump from
nonfiction to fiction. Brad's reactions to everyday annoyances such as a voluble gas station attendant and a nebbish hotel clerk are so extreme as to be confusing.
Not every main character needs to be likeable. They can even be flawed; but they must be sympathetic. Ask Toni Morrison, a master in this regard. Even when you hate her characters, you understand their actions. Sure, Brad's family is a little messed up, but whose isn't these days? Eggleston never reasons out Brad's utter contemptuousness, and so it's hard for the reader to care about his ultimate redemption. Even when it seems somewhat believable.
The good news is, storylines can be taught; a gift for words cannot. Eggleston has the latter, he just has to master the former. He's a few writer's workshops away from some very good writing, the type that won't have you flashing back to
tenth grade English. Once his characters develop their own voices (and stop having dialogues that sound as if the same person wrote them), they'll be forces to reckon with. Because This Guy clearly doesn't need a pilgrimage to Oz to find his talent; it was there all along.