Almost every review of Sam Munson’s guiltily good debut novel, The November Criminals, reports that the main character is a modern Holden Caulfield. If only J.D. Salinger had done us all the favor of recording himself reading his cult classic, The Catcher in the Rye! The stories have in common a certain style, a kind of moderately autobiographical rant from the perspective of the author’s teenage hero — except freaked out dropout Holden could learn a thing or seven from Munson’s narrator, Addison Schacht.
Holden is obsessed with the mystery of sex; Addison gets laid regularly, thanks to his un-girlfriend, Digger. They aren’t dating, they just have an “agreement”. Also, her real name is Phoebe, which happens to be the name of Holden’s little sister. Both Phoebes have important sidekick roles, and both Phoebes much more regularly engage in heroic behaviors than the so-called protagonists. Holden gets liquored up and makes a fool of himself everywhere he goes; Addison gets stoned and mostly plays it cool, even if he’s trembling with fear and loathing inside. Holden feels immense pressure; Addison feels no pressure at all, with his mother six feet under and his weakling father teaching pottery classes all day. Holden is failing out of school because he just doesn’t see the point of education; Addison is in the gifted program, an avid translator of the most difficult Latin, and eagerly applying to colleges.
Addison is applying to the University of Chicago (from which Munson graduated in 2003), answering an essay question concerning his best and worst qualities. The novel-length response to this prompt is comprised of both a diatribe against the various disgusting elements of life in Baltimore (where of course Munson himself grew up) and the specific details of his quest to solve the murder of a fellow student. But Addison doesn’t really know the student, who is African American in repeatedly relevant ways, and the murder itself doesn’t really need much solving. So this very light thread of mystery is woven into a complex, meandering self-portrait of Addison — where Addison is pretty much Sam Munson, and Sam Munson is doing the narrating.
Munson spews forth his rant with a genuine vitriol and an impeccable sense of timing. He cracks Holocaust jokes and rages against mediocrity. He sounds a little like Henry Rollins, a lot like Seth Rogen, and entirely like himself. He perceptively cusses up an intelligent storm of dislike for authority and — something Holden never caught on to — dislike of himself. The perpetually unfinished and optimistic business of self-improvement here begs for a second installment. Perhaps “Holden Caulfield Goes to College” would indeed have been too depressing to write, given Salinger’s own failures. But Sam Munson has crafted a real and relatable voice for and of himself here — and hey, he did graduate from college — so it stands to reason that Addison can succeed where Holden cannot. — Megan Volpert