“Reality Bites,” declared the 1994 film of the same name heralded by many as the definitive treatment of love-related woes among 20-something Generation Xers. In “Good Kids,” the debut novel by Benjamin Nugent (author of the witty and perceptive nonfiction work “American Nerd: The Story of My People”), fantasy gets its comeuppance. A cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in dreaming of an alternate life, “Good Kids” is a tragicomic, minimally derivative addition to the much-excavated genre of early adulthood relationship angst.
Of course, even older adults wrestle with the centrifugal forces of amour. Indeed, Nugent begins the story in 1994 by having narrator Josh Paquette and classmate Khadijah Silverglate-Dunn, 15-year-old residents of the fictitious Western Massachusetts town of Wattsbury (Nugent grew up in Amherst and lives in Boston), spying his father and her mother kissing. This discovery forges a double-bond between Josh and Khadijah: mutual attraction and a vow never to cheat on their future spouses.
But Khadijah and her mother (who gave her daughter her Arabic name during a short-lived Sufi phase) move to Cambridge, leaving Josh bereft. Nugent breezes through the next decade of Josh’s life, but does so with an eye on depicting the hold Khadijah (unwittingly) still exercises over her friend. “I hadn’t seen or exchanged a word with her in four years. I didn’t know where she was,” muses Josh at one point. “But the fact that I still remembered her, still turned over our moments together and studied them, still summoned to mind her great acts like verses from gospel, made me feel like an inmate clutching a battered photograph.”
By 2007, the year in which the story’s second half takes place, Josh, who now lives in Los Angeles, has avoided morphing into his philandering father. He is also engaged to the beautiful and headstrong Julie Oenervian. Yet he seems conflicted. On one hand, he and Julie have tacked up sketches of their as-yet-unconceived children on the bathroom mirror. On the other hand, he still holds a candle for Khadijah. These apparently separate idiosyncrasies may share a common root; a sure-footed Nugent teases out similarities between Josh’s fanciful and rigid mental constructs of a woman he hasn’t seen in over a decade and children he may never sire.
When Josh and Khadijah — who is also engaged — meet again, the candle blazes. He wants her, and his desire seems far from unrequited. “I had to preserve the vow,” frets Josh. “But in this circumstance, in which, unlike the others, the person with whom I wanted to break the vow was the person with whom I had sworn the vow, the mnemonic exercise was not as effective.”
Josh will, of course, wrestle with the dichotomy between the real Khadijah and the one animating his dreams, and here Nugent gets mixed marks. Some scenes are handled deftly, but one involves stilted philosophizing about the nature of love.
Ironically, the story’s major plot points render Josh’s pedantic tangent superfluous. Beware the God-like authorial power of fantasizing, runs the inescapable admonition throughout this novel, for it can damage your flexibility in real life, where you lack the ability to fashion people according to your whims. By the time we hit the denouement, “Good Kids” has emerged as a modest modern-day rebuttal of the fairy tale romance.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at calaboose@