The one word that comes to mind when I think back on Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing is “rubbernecking.” Reading the book gave me the sensation of being stuck in a traffic jam on a hot evening. One of those epic Long Island traffic jams, where everyone is trying to get home from Jones Beach at the same time. You can see the screaming lights of the police and fire vehicles up ahead, and you know it’s going to be bad when you finally get there – but you still want to get there, so you can go past. You don’t want to look as your car finally inches single file past the disaster. But your eyes are drawn to it, and you crane your neck to see signs of life, to assure yourself that it’s all going to be alright. Unfortunately, you’re left with the empty feeling that sometimes things are not alright after all.
It’s clear from the first pages that ex-pat superteacher William Silver isn’t what he appears to be on the surface. Serene and confident in the classroom, his inner world roils with some kind of agonizing remorse. He manages to hold himself together during the day, making ancient authors come to life for his high school students, infusing their days with idealistic lessons about social justice. He makes them believe they have the power to change society. Some of them feel like they can never measure up. Others believe societal conventions no longer apply to them.
The novel is beautifully written from alternating first-person perspectives: Will’s own, nymphet high schooler Marie’s, and that of a new student at the tony English academy in Paris where he teaches, Gilad. At first I thought the third voice was superfluous. But I realized that Gilad was there to show us the collateral damage caused when adults behave badly. Late in the novel, 17-year-old Gilad wrestles with his inability to protect his mother from his abusive father:
That night I stayed in my room. I pissed out the window into the courtyard below. I read. I walked back and forth. I held the door handle. Imagined opening it. Breaking down their door. Cross the fucking room. Dig down. Push. Go.
But I was a coward. I stayed where I was. I looked out into the night and put it all away. I looked out my window and knew that Silver, somewhere in the city, was in his apartment. He’d be reading. Listening to John Coltrane or something. Or at his desk, grading papers. Writing poems maybe. The light low, a beautiful bare-shouldered woman reading on the couch. There he was living his honorable life. I saw it clear as anything. (p. 196-197)
The novel’s conclusion is clear from a first, fateful phone call. And yet that didn’t stop me from turning the pages, because I was so interested in what the characters would do with the situation. This is a very intense novel, not at all light, but moving and well-crafted. But I would definitely say you need to be in a quiet, contemplative mood to get the most out of it. I’d recommend it for lovers of contemporary literary fiction, but I also think the strong voices of the teenagers would make it a logical choice for young adult readers. My 19-year-old daughter picked it up after me, and said she was enjoying it.
Dealing with my mother’s illness took me out of the blogging loop for a good part of the past year. So I’m finally entering the Europa Editions Reading Challenge at the Ristretto level for 2013, even though I’m hopeful I’ll finish more than 2 titles before December. I continue to be so impressed by the imprint and the fantastic authors they represent that I wouldn’t want to miss the challenge! Thanks so much to Marie of Boston Bibliophile for creating the challenge.