The Year of Endless Sorrows: A Novel
by Adam Rapp
A Kind of Everystory of Early Adult Life
A review by Jill Owens
Adam Rapp has written several award-winning plays, as well as a slew of young adult novels. He is also the writer and director of Winter
Passing, a funny, odd, low-key movie that is surprisingly moving. From The Year of Endless Sorrows, Rapp's new novel, I wouldn't have pegged him for a playwright or screenwriter, if I didn't know his history. (I didn't know it, in fact, until after I read the book.) His prose is too rich -- gleeful, even -- with its own power and intelligence in nailing down the world. But there is something cinematic in the pacing -- a punchiness to the dialogue, the frighteningly seamless way circumstantial events can spiral out of control -- that, when combined with Rapp's humor and language skills, creates a delightful and disturbing portrait of the absurd years of post-college, pre-money life in a city.
That said, the plot is not the reason to read this book. While not exactly forgettable, it serves to progress the story without being much more than a vehicle, a kind of everystory of early adult life. The main character, known only by his nickname, Homon, comes from the Midwest to New
York City (as the first chapters, written in first person plural, make clear, it could have been any small town, to perhaps any big city) to write his novel, while working in publishing for barely enough money to keep himself in beer and ramen. His apartment, shared with three other people in much the same boat (which are more sharply drawn characters), is a squat previously inhabited by a
speed-metal band who left behind roaches and frightening body emissions. This is not a new story, but it is not supposed to be, and the generic nature of the
plot works surprisingly well to make it easily translatable, describing a kind of life rather than a particular one. (The book is less successful towards the end, when events in Homon's life become both more specific and somewhat
The reason to read this book, even if it's not an unqualified success, is that Rapp's language is amazing. It manages to be, by turns and sometimes simultaneously, wildly inventive, weirdly poignant in its precision, and occasionally, absolutely hilarious. Here is an early description of the collective Midwestern emigrants:
Some of us were raised on farms. We can talk about silos and
combines and grain elevators and detasseling corn. We can talk about counting the beans and the fever itch of hay and how it can drive you to rinsing your arms with gasoline. We can talk about cow tipping and crop blight. We can talk
about the pig doctor and how he swallows the viscous, worm-like, bluish membrane after castrating the hogs -- how he plucks it out of the mutilated genitals with a pair of homemade forceps.
Because he is so specific, Rapp's talents beg to be enumerated: his ridiculous character names, his devastating one-liners, his peculiar ability to evoke (often disgusting) smells. But what works about the book as a whole works here, on this word/language level. It's deceptive, all this humor,
scatology, word-dazzle. It keeps your attention on the surface, while the book's near universal setting works behind the scenes to bring up your own post-adolescent memories, horror stories, and other moments that set the tone of your life. It's a very effective legerdemain, with both elements working in concert to create an unsettling (at times uncanny) and affecting reading experience.