As the pandemic heads into its third summer, pandemic fiction is just getting started. And though novel variants (variant novels?) will be with us for years to come, I’ll guarantee now that no other character will react to lockdown like Ethan Fawcett, the protagonist of Katie Hafner’s curious fiction debut, “The Boys.”
I can’t offer much evidence for my assertion without revealing an extravagant plot twist that Hafner takes great pains to conceal for more than half the novel, so let’s cover what I can talk about, then I’ll vaguely address how all the intentional obfuscation influenced my read.
One thing the novel makes clear from the start is that Ethan is anxious. He is saddled with “more than [his] share of aversions,” and is loathe to leave anything to chance. Sometimes this need for control has consequences, and when the novel begins in mid-2022, Ethan is estranged from his wife, Barb, and has been told by a tour company, in no uncertain terms, that his “particular set of needs” while on a recent bicycle trip to northern Italy with his sons made him customer non grata in the future.
The fateful trip was Ethan’s second with the company, a repeat of the honeymoon route he and Barb took in 2018. As a couple, they were always a study in contrasts. They met at a start-up in West Philly where Ethan handled tech and Barb worked part time while earning her PhD in psychology. He is a planner. She’s spontaneous. She was raised in suburban affluence, her childhood “rich with happiness,” “warm and womb-like.” He was raised by his grandparents in a “ceaseless whiff of tragedy” after his parents drowned on vacation in Hawaii when he was 8. Ethan’s long-ago decision to skip the trip and stay in Minnesota, made with singular autonomy for a child, haunts him into adulthood.
Ethan moves in with Barb two months after their first date, and six months later they’re engaged. After the Italian honeymoon, they talk about having kids, and Ethan, being Ethan, goes ahead and child-proofs the house while they try to get pregnant. After many unsuccessful months, they discover that he can’t have children. They discuss their options, but haven’t made any decisions together when Ethan comes home from a business retreat in late 2019 to learn that Barb has decided for them, introducing him to Sam and Tommy, 8- or 9-year old twins “adopted from Russia … on a temporary basis.”
The subsequent onset of the pandemic is a professional boon for Barb, an expert on the effects of loneliness, especially for the elderly, and Ethan retreats into his own world with the kids, becoming “a total hermit.” Even after vaccines are available, he remains isolated, continuing to homeschool the boys, fret about their allergies, and skip Sunday dinners with Barb’s parents.
Barb grows frustrated about the amount of time Ethan spends with their kids, which seems odd to readers because we don’t really understand why. She posits some psych terms, but they’re not relevant to her objections. The couple go to therapy, but Barb walks out, which is, to put it mildly, confusing behavior from a psychologist. Ethan is no help to readers, offering pabulum like “in my silence lay the seeds of self-destruction. Even then, I couldn’t stop myself from robbing the present to repay the debts of the past.” Barb moves out, Ethan books the repeat bike tour with the boys, and whammo: the novel’s tenor changes completely.
The relocation to Italy eliminates Barb’s already infrequent voice and temporarily replaces Ethan’s narrative perspective with that of Izzy, a tour guide whose name was foreshadowed a couple times in Ethan’s obtuse recollections. From Izzy’s interactions with Ethan we finally learn what actually blew up his marriage. And it is a doozy of a plot twist straight out of a Jordan Peele or M. Night Shyamalan film. Unfazed, Izzy accepts Ethan with a combination of 21st-century everyone-is-entitled-to-their-own-reality feel-goodery and Catholic-derived tolerance, telling her boyfriend that Ethan is “a living, breathing definition of a parable.”
But he isn’t. Ethan is having a mental health crisis and needs help that he doesn’t get from anyone in the novel. And the main reason he doesn’t feels like nothing more than narrative convenience, because Barb is a successful psychologist witnessing Ethan’s actions in their home. She just couldn’t say anything in the first half of the book because it would have blown the surprise Hafner was hiding.
Mystery and misdirection are great when they have a point, when they turn the screws and yield a satisfying resolution. But Hafner conceals Ethan’s behavior for one reason only: to mislead the reader and create artificial tension. The deception does nothing to enhance the ostensible story about childhood trauma, lockdown isolation, and mental illness. Instead, preservation of the twist comes at the expense of the narrative, precluding intriguing and valuable discussions about the pandemic that as a society we need to start having as we try to process the past several years. Some of these questions do get raised obliquely, but they’re not explored more deeply in order to preserve the charade.
But if you like your fiction full of oddities and don’t overthink every narrative decision, go ahead and toss “The Boys” in your beach bag. Just make sure not to get them wet. Wait, what? Exactly. What?
By Katie Hafner
Spiegel & Grau, 256 pages, $27
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.