Not so sure about that, but great review of the new novel over at The Coil. Read it here or down below.
At first I thought that Daniel Falatko’s Travels and Travails of Small Minds would be just another tale of eccentric places and vagabond lifestyle, of living on the edge of poverty and starvation while the protagonist embarks upon some soul-searching adventure in the manner of beats like Jack Kerouac. It manages to be this, but much more, and in a delightful, not pretentious way.
The title is deceiving. This is not a tale of a small minds. It’s the tale of an intelligent, observant mind, one who in the manner of most postmodern heroes, can’t seem to fit into the world around him, or at least can’t find motivation to be anything greater than himself. Initially, we only see our protagonist react to the world around him, or not react much at all. I didn’t really know what “travails” meant, other than a word that is usually followed after “travels,” so I looked it up. It means “a painful or laborious effort,” which indeed is the heart of this novel. There is travel, but certainly more travail than anything.
Set primarily in hipster/crust punk-infested New York, the narrator, Nathan, works for a former English professor, Dr. Behr, who inherited some real estate and a fortune from his father and now runs a shady leasing business and refuses to use computers. At first he’s nothing but an eccentric prude for Nathan to complain about, but it turns out he has an obsession with a fictional beat writer, James Salanack. Salanack primarily writes “decadence for the sake of decadence”-type works, surreal, bizarre and William Burroughs-esque. Nathan shrugs this off as crap, which it probably is, but nonetheless, he is fascinated by it.
Then Dr. Behr gives Nathan an assignment: he must travel to England with $150,000 in cash, have payments made by a colleague of Dr. Behr’s, and meet with a Salanack fanatic, who is determined to own everything that Salanack ever touched, including old syringes, pool sticks, and most importantly, the properties where Salanack lived. Turns out the money he’s delivering is payment for an apartment of one of Dr. Behr’s tenants, whom he will illegally evict and whom Nathan accidentally meets and begins to root for.
The conflict takes a long time to build up. We begin in an unfamiliar weird, wild Russia. The first chapter and subsequent Russia chapters that follow read like notes of a world that to us seems bizarre and foreign, but for Nathan has become his everyday. Falatko has a talent for detail and world-building. Wherever you are in the book you will hear, see, and feel the world.
Gone is the cell phone chatter of cream-skinned blonds and the controlled hum of black SUVs, left now to walk amongst shards of colored glass from smashed soft drink machines, listening to the gnashing of my own teeth,
he writes. The only problem is that paragraphs and paragraphs of description slow down the progress of the novel. Even if the lines are beautiful, to quote another famous beat poet, he’d do well to kill a few darlings.
The environment is described superbly. You know exactly where you are down to dust mites on the corners of the walls and chipped coffee mugs — all things that Nathan, in his sad postmodern boredom, has nothing else to do but notice. There’s a certain joy taken from misery that the prose illuminates. Pages go on and little happens. Nathan is surrounded by academic snobs, burnouts, hipsters, and dull old people and rarely has much to say about it other than to report it to the reader, both unflatteringly and flatteringly. He doesn’t seem to like anything and ends up being perhaps the dullest object or character because he’s never more than an observer, there to report, but not to participate until the last 50–100 pages or so. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it makes us feel the longing and boredom Nathan feels by becoming so surrounded and flooded with details.
The novel is a diary of loneliness from the mind of a charming young man, desiring to escape the monotonous life he lives yet uncomfortable to break away from it. Along with this, we occasionally experience a certain meta-fiction self-awareness:
You’re a very unaware narrator,
Nathan’s coworker tells him, which naturally he is not. This sort of awareness seems to be added as a little wink, instead of a consistent joke.
Nathan’s relationship with Cally, the soon-to-be-evicted manic pixie dream girl, develops a little too quickly, with only one night of lovemaking to fuel his compassion and determination to make things right. It’s hard to tell what he likes about her so much. If time had been taken to develop their relationship, it would be more compelling, but for the most part his mission to do the ethical thing and keep her from losing her apartment is that morally it’s the right thing to do.
What Falatko lacks in structure he makes up for in character. Nathan meets some petty, wild old men in England who are fascinatingly grotesque. What Bukowski did for poetry, Falatko does for prose. The only thing more unpleasant and unlikeable than the whackos and lowlifes of skid row are the pretentious professors and wealthy capitalists. These men are perhaps the real scum, whereas the working class tend to be friendly and delightful, like Bilky, a drunken meathead who ends up being a deus ex machina, or Milton Perth, the millionaire Salanack obsessive who turns out, despite his silly fixation on an underground writer, to be a decent guy when he’s not bragging about his possessions.
Funny, even repugnant and vulgar at times, but overall enjoyable, Travels and Travails of Small Minds is a story that seems to go nowhere and ends up going somewhere very fast. Falatko has a talent for rich, strange detail and keeps us engaged, even if we’ve only walked two blocks in Nathan’s life. Personally, I prefer the original title, One Thin Dime, as it brings more curiosity to the novel, and now that I’ve finished it I know why those three words were originally chosen. But for the reader, the story itself is no travail.