Brooklyn, the New York City borough, is one thing. “Brooklyn,” the endless circle of self-congratulation celebrated in the media, is quite another. Consider its multimillion-dollar lofts, its Italian New Wave-themed vintage clothing stores, its shops bursting with hand-labeled artisanal condiments. Consider its hipsters, its towering literary scene — every writer lives there — and all those Times trend pieces and New York editorials plumbing its every whim and gesture for cultural meaning.
To believe in this Brooklyn is to believe in a middle-class fantasy land of creativity and ethical consumerism. Henry Lang, the protagonist of Michael Dahlie’s gently satiric new novel, buys into it completely. “The Best of Youth” concerns an aspiring writer and graduate of Harvard College with a $15 million inheritance who moves to Brooklyn and immerses himself in the scrim of arty youth culture and locavore cuisine. The title is intended ironically, and the plot gives occasion for plenty of funny, piquant observations about the thorough silliness of hipster diversions.
The protagonist, however, is a bit more of a problem. Henry’s understanding of the world, like his chances for starvation, is minimal, and Dahlie’s language reflects that. Henry is “happy,” “pleased,” and “delighted” when things aren’t “terrible,” “excruciating,” or “unnerving.” Henry senses, but never fully grasps, that Brooklyn might not be the most vibrant and wonderful place in the world; he doesn’t have the vocabulary. Few do. Dahlie’s use of simple prose doesn’t represent a failure of imagination; he uses it to paint a portrait of emotional and intellectual poverty. But that kind of penury amid such muchness can grate, and Dahlie leaves the reader annoyed and impatient for more breadth.
Although Henry has money, his understanding of social currency is murky at best. To get closer to the throbbing heart of literary Brooklyn, he subsidizes an insouciant magazine that takes him for a patsy, rejects his fiction submission, and publicly humiliates him. He doggedly pursues a distant cousin and cannot understand that her rejection has to do with his dorkiness, not small amounts of shared genetic material. He does not notice that he always pays for dinner.
Restrained by politeness and breeding, Henry bumbles around, drinking too much, not knowing what he really wants or needs. Often, he gets humiliated; at other times, he inadvertently makes trouble for other, less well-meaning rich folks; but most of the time, he attempts to participate in what everyone agrees is the most vibrant and dynamic social scene in the universe without ever feeling completely at ease. Sound familiar? It should: The premise is nearly identical to that of the HBO show “Girls.’’
As unemployment soars and ever-increasing scores of recent college graduates occupy their parents’ basements, the trials of affluent young New Yorkers have captured the nation’s sympathies for reasons unknown, though likely similar to those that caused the people who suffered through bread lines to flock to films with an overabundance of fur coats.
The foibles of a post-adolescent one-percenter could provide more than ample tinder for a real scorcher of a book, but Dahlie seems to prefer a smoldering burn. Outlandish things happen to Henry and his cohorts, but nothing so outlandish as to endanger their affluence.
Henry starts off an alienated rich person and ends up less alienated, less rich, and a successful writer. Dahlie’s larger point seems to be that the wealthy will usually triumph by virtue of their station. Right. Accordingly, despite the zany capers upon which its protagonist embarks, “The Best of Youth” is ultimately a book in which nothing much happens because nothing much was ever at stake.
A little over 20 years ago, Bret Easton Ellis created Patrick Bateman, another flat, wealthy narrator living the American dream. A generous helping of gruesome murders clued readers of “American Psycho” into the fact that not only was Bateman a monster, but there was something monstrous about ’80s Manhattan.
Millennial Brooklyn, it seems, is a much gentler place. Accordingly, Dahlie is much softer on his hero. Then again, why shouldn’t he be? To suggest that nice rich guys who’ve done nothing to earn their station might experience the best of youth is practically the zeitgeist.