By Ben Dolnick
Harper Press £12.99, 352 pages
FT bookshop price: £10.39
Eighteen should be the age for effervescent optimism, when long-limbed, glossy-haired young adults bolt the familial home and seize the gifts independence has to offer. But, in reality, the cusp of adulthood can be quite difficult: a time to feel misunderstood and agonise about nothing in particular. So it is for Henry, the narrator of Ben Dolnick’s first novel, Zoology.
At 18, the pudgy protagonist flunks school and drifts aimlessly with his bitter mother, sunny father and eccentric uncle. Then David, his successful dermatologist older brother, intervenes to help kick-start his life. He invites his sibling to live with him in New York.
Henry decides he’s had enough of “living like [he’s] fourteen” and gladly takes off to the big city. He packs his saxophone and hallucinatory dreams of becoming a jazz musician. Instead, however, he gets a job at a children’s zoo. It is here that he finds his only dependable friend: Newman, the stoic Nubian goat.
Henry falls in love with a young, aspiring writer, Margaret, who is babysitting in a neighbouring flat. His attempts to translate her every utterance into a sign of interest are painfully evocative of adolescent self-absorption magnified by a teenage crush.
In one episode, Henry waits to make his move: “‘My dad called today’ she said. Was she asking me not to kiss her, or was she just nervous? Or was she really just thinking about her dad right then?” It would be easy to mock Henry, but Dolnick, who wrote this book when he was 23, is evidently writing about familiar territory. He handles his character’s feelings with sensitivity.
Nothing really bad happens to Henry. He worries a lot, but only about girls and Newman. He neither scales the apocalyptic heights of anxiety that adolescence holds for some, nor has thunderbolt epiphanies. It’s a sweet tale of middle-class angst – exactly the kind of accolade that would make Henry retreat to his darkened bedroom.
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