Toward the end of "Amateurs," the second novel from Dylan Hicks, two friends are discussing the literary success of an acquaintance, an author who lacked confidence in his writing ability when they knew him in college.
"Goes to show.... That sometimes the thing you're most afraid of is the thing you most need to do," concludes John, recently fired from his job as a personal caretaker to an elderly man.
His friend Lucas, chronically between jobs, replies, "The thing I'm most afraid of is burning to death."
There's plenty of this dark, knowing humor in Hicks' second novel, "Amateurs." It's a bright, perceptive story about friends trying with mixed results to wrestle with the pressures of adulthood, from the end of college in 2004 through the 2008 recession to a 2011 wedding.
The person at the center of the novel is Archer, the scion of a family that made a fortune manufacturing sex toys. He's not as smart as he imagines himself to be, and he carries himself with a dressed-down, carefully rumpled mien that extends to his wardrobe: "He looked like he was trying out for Yo La Tengo or delivering the Sacramento Bee in 1966," one friend observes.
He's also a minor literary celebrity, but not on his own merits — his friend Sara, a failed journalist, is his ghostwriter. Sara's boyfriend, John, and her roommate, Lucas, aren't quite sure how to feel about Archer's success, especially since they're struggling to hold on during the country's economic turmoil.
"Amateurs" jumps back and forth in time, with the main narrative focusing on Archer's upcoming wedding to a "likably preposterous woman" named Gemma in Winnipeg, Canada. By this time, Sara and John have split, and he is somewhat dreading the event, knowing that his ex will be there.
Archer's cousin Karyn — the novel's most compelling character — and her 11-year-old son, Maxwell, are also making the trip to Winnipeg with Lucas, who lacks a car or sufficient funds for airfare, tagging along.
You could call the novel meandering, and it is, but in the best possible way. Hicks, a journalist and singer-songwriter based in Minneapolis, follows friendships across time, and nobody is the same person at 30 than they were when they were fresh out of college.
Hicks does a near-perfect job tracing each character's evolving needs, desires and resentments over the course of seven years. John, for example, can't quite let go of his love for Sara but isn't sure whether he actually wants her back: "He considered his own loneliness to be a product not of inadequate company but of incomplete solitude."
And then there's Karyn, a single mother who has more or less given up on her dream of being an actor. She's not unhappy but is starting to come to terms with the fact that the biggest relationship in her life — the one with her son — isn't altogether perfect: "She loved him fervently but sometimes found herself rooting against him, hoping his occasional pride or sloth would be answered with a chastening defeat."
If Karyn is the book's most fully realized character, Sara comes a close second. She's spent years working as Archer's ghostwriter; she's paid well but is increasingly resentful that she gets no credit for Archer's work.
Making matters worse, she's beginning to develop feelings for him. "She thought about him all the time. It was like being in love with the pebble in your shoe," Hicks writes. "She couldn't go on like this forever, but that's what scared her: that she probably could."
The themes in "Amateurs" — friendship, love, envy — could potentially make for a maudlin novel. But Hicks, while undoubtedly a compassionate author, is never sentimental. He writes with a similar measured earnestness that calls to mind the best of Ann Beattie and Anne Tyler.
And though his prose isn't as stubbornly minimalist as those two authors — Hicks has a fondness for cutting similes, and he's an expert at them — he also shares with them a dry, funny sense of humor.
It's particularly present in the interactions between Karyn and Lucas, two of the novel's most winning oddballs. When Lucas attempts a jocularly posh accent, Karyn observes, "His attempt at an across-the-pond accent had foundered somewhere around Bermuda."
And when Karyn wonders aloud whether she should have attended law school, which she thought about as a younger woman, Lucas reassures her, "Hey, there's still time to pursue all sorts of unsatisfying second careers."
"Amateurs" ends perfectly, with many of its characters still in the grip of rudderlessness, still unsure whether the decisions they've made are the correct ones. In that way, of course, it's a lot like life. Hicks is a wonderful, meticulous author, even if the lives of his characters, like just about everybody's, are a shambles.
Schaub is a writer who lives in Austin, Texas.
By Dylan Hicks