Eric Recommends: ‘Apathy and Other Small Victories’

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I really need to start keeping track of who recommends which books to me, because I no longer have any idea why I read “Apathy and Other Small Victories,” and I want to thank the person who turned me on to it. So if that person is reading this, consider yourself thanked.

“Apathy and Other Small Victories,” by Paul Neilan, is a slim, sardonic novel about a shiftless man in his late 20s who, like so many of his generation, views the world with laziness, irony, scorn, and apathy. He has a lame job at an insurance company (though he mostly just sits in the bathroom and naps all day), and he drinks constantly. He’s currently having sex with his landlord’s wife to avoid having to pay rent. (He’s as puzzled by that arrangement as you are.) And then one day the deaf woman who works at his dentist’s office is killed, and the police seem to think he did it. He didn’t, of course, but can he muster the energy to care enough to prove it?

Neilan’s tone throughout is laugh-out-loud funny in a caustic, who-gives-a-crap way. His protagonist, Shane, has perfected the art of Gen-Y slacker laziness. He doesn’t care who he makes jokes about, or how offensive they might be, or how they will affect people. He’s like Holden Caulfield for the early-21st-century hipster generation.

A couple of choice passages:

She seemed like a nice person. But nice just isn’t enough anymore. Everybody’s nice, or they at least try to be, or pretend to be. You have to go to France or New York City to find a real a**hole these days, and they’re only doing it because people expect them to, like those monkeys at the zoo who throw their s*** at visitors through the bars. It’s more reputation than a real desire to smear feces all over somebody. And that’s just sad. (p. 33)

He looked at me the way my mom did the time she caught me officiating the wedding of Mr. Potato Head and He-Man. I had just said, “You may now kiss the bride,” and when I looked up she was standing in the doorway. I was fourteen years old, and I was not wearing any pants. (p. 36)

And my favorite line, the one that sort of sums up the book:

I suppose I could blame myself for how it turned out, but I’ve never been comfortable with that sort of thing.

By the way, Neilan lives in Portland (as do I), and though the book’s setting isn’t specifically named, it’s clear from the way it’s described that it’s Portland, too. And boy, do I ever know a lot of people like him here.