Irony’s chokehold on fiction is beginning to crack, and Here is How it Happens.
It happens in art school in Ohio. It happens in a greasy spoon on the highway at sunset, and again just before dawn. It happens not in spite of, but because cinnamon-apple is not in alphabetical order, household products kill, and killer bees are on the way. It almost happens on a dryer during the permanent press cycle. And it never happens the way it is supposed to.
Billed as fiction, but with lyricism borrowed from poetry, a California Sea Lion tranquilizer dart, and a day-glo orange hunting cap with earflaps, Spencer Dew‘s debut novel, Here is How it Happens, tracks a group of art-school sophomores in a small Ohio town.
Armed with scalpel-sharp wit and dwindling hopes, its characters have grown up in a culture saturated by a propaganda of naive optimism, oversimplified morality, and cookie-cutter trajectories: fall in love, get married, work hard in a fulfilling career, be satisfied and happy. Presented with a very different reality- parents lost to mental illness or alcohol-fueled absurdist beach parties; a tuber-like populace eating their way through chain restaurants; love that fizzled early and quickly descended into obligatory ritual- these characters have responded the way a real generation of young people has responded: by falling into a numbed, cynical detachment. Every moment turns into an opportunity to chain-smoke, huff paint thinner, or pillage someone else’s box-wine while quipping mordant slogans like, “Faith is a bit clichéd,” and “The kitsch of the past is the discourse of the future.”
This territory would instantly become tedious if the author were offering us only smart-alecky, ironical humor as a reason to read this book. But Dew is not a coward: he, like his protagonist, Martin, is a circumspect hunter out to bullseye the target on the dummy-deer in the Walmart sports-supply department, proving that it rests directly over an empty place that should contain a heart. One of the book’s principle characters, Kim, is the art “star” of the group. Rewarded with droll accolades by her teachers and held up as an example before other students, she is a vulture incapable of not creating art out of every waking experience, including those of her friends. She is the ultimate in righteous self-obsession, and is Dew’s acknowledgment that aloofness and abstraction is no better answer to the dark night of the soul than cleverness and self-destruction. But for a group of young people whose lives already feel as if they are nearly over, what is the answer? An overdose? Giving in to expectations and marrying the person you should love, but don’t? Cultivate the thickest skin possible? Concede futility and pursue one of many paths to zombiehood?
Rather than remain in the safe buffer zone of intellect, Here is How it Happens takes a brave step out of the realm of cynicism toward the infinitely more risky territory of tenderness. Dew does this best when he is not padding his good work with lyric flourish. Though there is plenty of heady, well-crafted language here for those who need the illustration of metaphor to solidify the underlying emotion, “a storm of blood light, clotting the sky,” the most powerful moments are simple and guileless, like the night Martin comes home to the attic dorm room he shares with Eddie, whose art takes the form of painstaking miniature dioramas of famous political scenes like the mass-murder at Kent State. Eddie, who has been working for hours and is covered with paint, puts a comforting hand on Martin’s shoulder, leaving a smudge:
“He dabs at my jacket with one of his rags, the rag smelling of heavy turpentine, blotched with military-tone paint.
‘It’s okay,’ I say. ‘Please don’t try and fix it.’”
Here is How it Happens
by Spencer Dew
Ampersand Books, March 2013