Keith Gessen's sad young men -- interns, editorial assistants, doctoral candidates, would-be novelists -- are an apprentice generation among New York's intellectual/literary circles. They spiral out of college spouting "The truth shall make you free" (Jesus), while parading their burn-out with "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" (Kris Kristofferson).
A few years along, though, in a culture geared to success and money, they find they want a lot more than nothing left to lose: tangible rewards -- but more than that, the identity the rewards stand for. Inner-directed is out, other-directed in, and identity is no longer self-conferred. It's conferred by society, whose rising tide -- this is a couple of years ago -- not only raises boats but sinks those that decline to float.
Gessen's eye is superbly fitted to spy out this scene for his fictional stories of three young intellectuals. For one thing, as a founding editor of n+1, perhaps the liveliest of the newer literary magazines, he has been bobbing along in their midst. For another (and this is more unusual), he writes not just from the inside but from the outside as well. His achingly comic command of the hopes, vanities, foibles and quandaries of his peers has produced something better than fashionably maneuvered satire. It is irony (of a rare cosmopolitan sort) that this Russian-born writer brings to the New York scene, a pond that takes itself to be the ocean. He evokes the world's culture along with our own.
Some of this larger dimension comes through Mark, one of the three sad ones. He has been working on his dissertation over years of guilty procrastination and meager stipend. His dissertation is on the Russian Mensheviks, a milder Communist faction that lost out to Lenin's Bolsheviks at the time of the Revolution. They brought arguments to the face-offs instead of guns. We get historian Victor Serge's assessment: They were "kind, intelligent, witty. But everything I saw convinced me that, face to face with the ruthlessness of history, they were wrong."
Mark pictures himself and his fellow intellectuals, all gem-like flame and failing arrogance, as Mensheviks falling from sight (and worse) while prizing "to be" over the Bolsheviks' "to do." He recalls Lenin's scorn for those who, as it were, would rather be right than president. Being president, for Lenin, was the only way to be right. (Stalin would show that it was the only way to be wrong.)
The Mensheviks were mostly unable to cross over. For these young literati, it is easier. Gessen suggests a Bolshevik ruthlessness in our society's moneyed realities, but at least there's no bar to diving in. So his trio, marooned upon its unrewarded idealisms, or vanities, dives in, or seems about to.
Menshevism and the efforts to abandon it provide a prismatic refraction to the stories of Mark, Keith and Sam, which thus become something more arresting than engaging how-we-live-now tales of anomie and dither among the young intelligentsia.
The least dithery is Keith, who finds early success and passion writing columns in support of Al Gore's presidential run. The Gore loss leaves him flailing, but he rebuilds his career with a book, and by the end he has become a member of New York's political writing establishment and plays touch football -- that funkily elite urban pastime -- on weekends.
Mark extends Menshevikian dither to his sex life. As with Keith and Sam, the inability to act applies particularly to his relations with a succession of women. They represent, rather cursorily, a reality principle that the men in their cloudiness are unable to deal with.
Sam's story starts out diffuse and flames up. After trying to write the great Israeli epic and finding he lacks a point of view, he decides to investigate the occupation in Gaza under the auspices of a pro-Palestinian observer group. He stays with a West Bank Arab family near Jenin, waiting for an atrocity, and otherwise eats ice cream in the cafes and e-mails a disaffected girlfriend. Finally, an Israeli tank appears, a stone is thrown, there is machine-gun fire and he and his exhilarated Palestinian friends flee.
Sam hates the Israeli tank. He also hates the delight he senses in a Palestinian cafe when news of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem is broadcast. His deepest insight comes in a night talk with Akhmed, an idealistic member of his host family, who loathes the tragic impasse he is stuck in as Sam is about to return comfortably to the United States. Akhmed weeps, "why why why," and the reader is shattered.
A different shattering comes at the end. Sam has glimpsed a truth, but it is part of Gessen's Menshevikian construct that truth not acted on has no power to free. Back in New York, Sam, of course, studies for law school. The book's mordant last lines mark the abyss between these sad young literary men and the world:
"It was important that he knew what he knew, though how exactly it would come into play was impossible to tell. For the moment, on weekends, he kept up with the news, sipped his beer, and thought about the future." *
Richard Eder, a former Times book critic, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.
*All the Sad Young Literary Men
Viking: 242 pp., $24.95