KR Reviews

OK Boomer1

Kenyon Review takes seriously the art and ethics of reviewing, and our editors attempt to minimize conflicts of interest that may distort a review. The following review is situated in the large network of the Review’s community, as Daniel Torday served as book review editor from 2010 to 2015, and we are grateful for the years of his service to KR. It is meant, as our editor David Lynn moves on from the journal, to not only give attention to an important new work of literature, but to recognize the work of those who previously shepherded the care and attention of the work of others.

Daniel Torday. Boomer1. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2018. 352 pp. $27.99.

Ours is not an Age of Reason or of Enlightenment or even of Anxiety, though there’s plenty of that around. No, ours has blossomed into an Age of Resentment. Of blame. Of a desire for score settling. (My personal ballot for the most ludicrous: a proposed Straight Pride Parade, presumably for all those heterosexual white males who feel hard done by of late.) And resentment is the driving motive in Daniel Torday’s excellent new novel Boomer1.

Like so many millennials we supposedly know—or as the media may sometimes paint the cliché—Mark Brumfeld has graduated from a fine northeastern liberal arts college, found a job at a glossy magazine in Manhattan, and migrated to an apartment in Brooklyn. On occasional weekend gigs he plays mandolin in a small bluegrass band. But it’s not far into this compelling narrative that the gloss quickly slides off the glossy. Magazines, including Mark’s, must trim their budgets and their staffs; his own hopes of being transfigured from editor into a successful writer wither; he scares away his girlfriend and bandmate Cassie with a crazily tone-deaf proposal (both are musicians, after all); and ultimately, he retreats in ignominy to the basement of his parents’ home in Baltimore.

Who’s to blame? Who’s to resent? Certainly not Mark in his own mediocrity and ineptitude. No, it’s those damn baby boomers, like the very parents who willingly enable him to refashion the adolescent anguish of his own, well, adolescence. Mark, adopting the nom de rant of Isaac Abramson and the log-in handle, naturally, of Boomer1, launches onto the Internet a wild diatribe about how very much the Baby Boomers have, by holding onto their jobs past 65, locked their children’s generation out of jobs in the academy, the various professions, and so on. Other millennials, apparently quite a few of them, employed or not, find the video captivating. It quickly goes viral, and Mark/Isaac follows with fresh harangues. An angry, swelling community of the like-minded soon joins the ever-more outraged exchange. It may feel ludicrous and overblown, but when those other outraged twenty-somethings chime in on the dark web, the plot grows dark as well, and violence looms.

There’s a fluid line between comedy and satire, and Boomer1 blithely crosses in both directions. In this contemporary world, for example, professional success sometimes seems a lottery. While Mark/Isaac has skulked away to Baltimore, his former lover Cassie is seduced into one enormously remunerative job after another in the world of social media. Who said love or life was fair?

But there’s some seriousness here as well. It happens to be true, for example, that senior professors are very hard to dislodge from tenured sinecures. (Colleges and universities would often gladly bid them adieu, hiring younger replacements at vastly less expense.) This is one of many reasons why there are few job openings in the academy. Nevertheless, in the larger scheme of righteous aggrievements in the world, the sins of the baby boom generation in refusing to retire simply don’t loom very large. And that’s part of the point.

For Torday’s implicit intention, it seems to me, may be an interrogation of that singular cultural phenomenon of our historical moment, our age of resentments. As we all know, many other groups or cohorts or communities are voicing familiar, coherent, sympathetic, often well-deserved yet also highly corrosive grievances. Tracking the ignition of one young man’s personal bitterness into an outsized rage blazing across the Internet and kindling a certain considerable population may be laughable, but it may also parallel—and illuminate—the kind of outrage that defines our cultural politics. But Torday, wisely I believe, steers away from more incendiary topics involving race, class, and gender identities. Millennial exasperation towards their baby-boomer parents allows for a cooler satire that probes at a trajectory of emotional grievance that the other resentments may in fact share.

I’ll risk a spoiler here—be warned—because the denouement is hilarious in its ironies. As the novel draws to a close, the plot’s animus has been spent, but at considerable cost. Several innocent, and not-so-innocent, people are dead. Mark, silent now and invisible, has been locked away for a very long time. Many months have passed, and his father at last insists on wrenching his wife, wounded by all that has happened to their son, out of their house. Although she herself is almost entirely deaf—she too was once a musician and robbed of hearing by her own hard-rocking youth—he thinks she will enjoy a special performance by the Baltimore Symphony. In advance she has shown no interest and so is surprised by the attire of her fellow attendees: yes, other baby boomers, many dressed casually, even in sandals. The conductor appears wearing a tie-dye t-shirt along with tuxedo trousers. Soon the orchestra is playing covers of the Grateful Dead. Mark’s mother, feeling only the thumps of deep bass and percussion, can merely sit and watch the bizarre pantomime of generational incongruity before her.