Conventional wisdom says that almost all first novels are autobiographical. If this is true, say a prayer for Detroit writer Michael Zadoorian.
His protagonist, a day-dreaming nerd called Richard, has been on the ropes for a while. He runs a secondhand shop, Satori Junk, in what one assumes is Ferndale. Business hours are somewhat haphazard as Richard tools about the area going to estate sales where he ferrets about the detritus looking for keepers. Then it’s off to the hospital to visit with his mother who’s on her deathbed. Also attending is his sister Linda, a social climber shacked up with an MSU frat boy in the suburbs.
Richard’s spirits get a lift the day Theresa arrives in his shop. She’s your typical hipster chick, but to our lovelorn hero, four years without a shag, she’s a goddess. Not even a visit to her shabby apartment in Royal Oak, where a slew of mongrel kittens have the run of the place, can put out the flame. After a suitably tentative and self-involved courtship, the duo hit the sack.
But as one expects with Generation X-Y literature, the sex comes with more than a few strings attached. It’s to Zadoorian’s credit that the tangle is out of the ordinary. Theresa is a sympathetic head case, not because she’s listened to Tori Amos one too many times or because Uncle Slats got her alone in the basement when she was 12. Theresa puts animals down at the local shelter and a day’s work is a night’s torment. Sending Spot to the big sleep is not for the faint of heart. The girl needs a new job.
Likewise, Richard is more than a white-trash loser playing at bohemia. He’s a young man addicted to extended adolescence but nonetheless in search of maturity, of authenticity. Junk is his muse. “So I say, like what you like, ugly or beautiful or beautifully ugly. Stop thinking about it. Try not to laugh at everything. Create your own codes. There is a taint of death in all irony.”
For Richard, the new is no better than the old; we can choose what we want, not what we’re told to want.
Zadoorian’s writing is never less than competent, although there is a bit too much of it. The book could lose a quarter of its length and come off much stronger, particularly if the extended ruminations about Richard’s dead father and his aborted hobby as a photographer had been pruned. While one might expect blue-collar hagiography from a Detroit writer, it’s no more welcome than a kid from Palo Alto going on about his daddy’s sacrifices to Sun Corporation.
A cynic might argue that built-in obsolescence as a subject requires the reserve of a hard-bitten existentialist. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, off to the showroom. But Zadoorian suggests otherwise.
In the final chapters, the prose lean and mean, Richard and Theresa decamp to Oaxaca to take part in Day of the Dead celebrations. Their flagging relationship finds new life in the tropical light. And amid the candles, the incense and the processions, our lovers realize that junk is all in the heart of the beholder. To throw away is human; to conserve is divine.
Timothy Dugdale writes about books and visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.