Good Kids by Benjamin Nugent
June 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
Josh Paquette is fifteen when we meet him and Khadijah, who are flung together when they discover Josh’s father and Khadijah’s mother having an affair. The teenagers’ relationship is emotional but tentative, and is ripped apart, pre-internet, when Khadijah’s mother separates from her husband and moves away. Before the move, the two sign a contract that they will never cheat on their partners. Thirteen years later, Josh has spent time (and money) in a band, trying to make it as a musician. Cash starts to come in when one of the band’s songs is used on a Pepsi advert, but by then most of them are done with the tiring insecurity of the work and have drifted away. Josh meets Julie, who presents an animal programme on TV, and despite her conservative background they get together. The discussions between them are handled well, and it’s an interesting commentary too on how, between people of a similar (entitled, educated) class, political differences are not as divisive as we’d like to think. If everyone is happy to take whatever they can get, does it matter whether their views are progressive (“everyone should be able to have this, whether or not they are born into privilege”) or politically selfish (“not everyone can have this, but they have a chance if they work as hard as I do”)? Josh and Julie seem like a solid couple, despite Josh’s occasional hankerings for Khadijah, until Khadijah comes back into Josh’s life.
There’s a nice scene in Good Kids where the families of Josh (from a small, liberal, west coast college town, inevitably Democratic) and Julie (both parents immigrants, now wealthy, reactively Republican) meet at a restaurant. It’s hard to imagine this kind of thing happening in public in quite the way it does in the novel, with each side a little more willing to be both vulnerable (actually discussing dangerous topics) and polite (not instinctively trying to come out on top) than seems entirely realistic, at least in my experience, but sometimes that’s part of the fun of fiction—enjoying the wit and sparkle of a debate that could never happen. At the restaurant, Josh’s sister Rachel talks about her work with homeless people in Massachusetts. The two families meet up later at a party to celebrate the third season of Julie’s show. After the party Julie goes back to the hotel with Josh, Rachel and their mother. Nugent sets up this comic set piece with the sister and the girlfriend getting along famously, finding things they can agree on, really trying and succeeding, until Josh’s mother turns on the television to check the weather and catches an interview Julie gave at the party, during which she mocks Rachel’s work by saying if the show is cancelled she’s going to move to Massachusetts to become homeless, since she’d just heard there’s a scheme there that has shut down homeless shelters and instead instigated a scheme to pay the rent of anyone who can’t afford it.
Julie, of course, was simply using the material to hand as comedy material (while knowing she was trading on goodwill), but it totally wrecks the cosy moment. The whole day of the families getting together is probably the high point of Nugent’s novel. He makes you think he’s about to demonstrate an enviable knack of skewering people, whether Republicans like his future in-laws or organic yuppies, but pulls his punches at the last minute to do something altogether more unpredictable and interesting, which is find the good in people in a non-saccharine way. When the two mothers meet, for example, he has been predicting, explicitly and implicitly, while directing us also to expect, hostility and antagonism. But instead we get this unexpected gentle perceptiveness:
It was time to face the Oenervians like a man. I swallowed and called Julie’s name. My mother’s face took on the same amusement and triumph it’d taken on when Khadijah had called in 1994. When I introduced her to Vanda and Samson, she and Vanda exchanged smiles that were mildly incredulous, as if they were saying “We actually birthed these people.” I could feel myself floating to earth; there were stores of humility and selflessness in our mothers’ faces, a variety of feeling I had forgotten about.
Good Kids seems to have been barely reviewed. I’m not sure why this should be the case. Sure, it covers fairly familiar territory, but plenty of less skilful novels working the same ground have made a bigger splash. It’s a long time since I’ve read Nick Hornby, but Good Kids could be a more nuanced version of Hornby’s books, with less reliance on name dropping, shared references and stereotypes. One of the blurbs on the back describes it as “catchy, like a hit song,” which seems just about right.
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