|JEFF HOBBS ( )|
"The Tourists" is an intriguingly apt title for Jeff Hobbs's debut novel about four Yale-graduate Manhattanites as they near 30 and finally begin to take stock. They are, in fact, tourists in their own lives, never fully engaged with much beyond their insular social circles and mired in a kind of pervasive malaise and voyeuristic disconnect.
Though they are often a little tedious and not particularly lik able, it's easy to get caught up in their comings and goings. And while Hobbs's account bogs down in spots, it is an impressive debut in which keen insights are often strewn amid the narrative like shiny pennies on a dirty sidewalk.
The story's seeds are planted one fateful night on the Yale quad, as the book's unnamed narrator and his friend Ethan sit watching a drama production. For them, however, the show soon takes a back seat to the subtle drama unfolding across the way, as golden boy David and the beautiful Samona quietly exhibit the signs of burgeoning attraction. Both the narrator and Ethan are transfixed, though for different reasons, and this pivotal scene, with its undercurrent of jealousy, yearning, and sexual conflict, sets up the entire book.
The real story happens eight years later, after all the main characters have moved to New York and become, in their individual ways, disaffected yuppies, longing for connection yet embalmed in the torpor of their unfulfilled dreams. The narrator is a struggling freelance writer. His eight years have been "punctuated by four or five address changes, professional stasis, the beginnings and requisite endings of a few minor relationships, and -- near the end -- the onset of that lonely, latent kind of panic which accompanies the realization that you can no longer afford not to know where your life is heading."
He's a cipher. He describes but seldom reacts, the cool observer whose own vested interest in the group is emotionally tenuous. His long - ago homosexual dalliance with Ethan, who announced he was gay two weeks after the night on the quad, is referred to with as little import as admitting a craving for mocha lattes, and his fixation with Samona, ignited by a brief drunken kiss during junior year, is never convincingly explained. In fact, Samona is a bit of a cipher herself. She doesn't come across as flesh and blood, but seems as sadly vacuous as the men are jaded and calculating. She is married to David, who has fallen into a career as a wildly successful financier and largely abandoned their marriage for work. The charismatic Ethan has made his own fortune designing artistically edgy furniture.
As the quartet spins into tighter and tighter orbit, Samona becomes not just the fixation of the narrator and David, but of Ethan. He forsakes his male lover to seduce her, then finds himself drawn to David, ultimately throwing everyone's clenched feelings into an emotional Mixmaster of betrayal and self-delusion.
What saves "The Tourists" from overwrought melodrama is Hobbs's tone, which he gets just right. His narrator has just enough self-awareness, social savvy, and cynicism to analyze the proceedings with wry acuity.
The 26-year-old Hobbs was mentored through the novel-writing process by Bret Easton Ellis, and it shows. (In fact, it's too bad Simon & Schuster didn't leave in the two essays introducing the advanced reading copy of the novel contrasting the experiences of mentor and mentored.) But even without the noted connection, "The Tourists" strongly calls to mind the "brat pack" novels of Ellis and Jay McInerney, with an undercurrent of "The Great Gatsby" as well, all updated to here and now, and sure to make sensitive readers worry about the future of this generation. "The Tourists" is about privileged 20-somethings floundering through life's journey without the aid of a moral compass or a clue as to how and where to set down roots.
Karen Campbell is a freelance writer based in Brookline.