AMATEUR BARBARIANS by Robert Cohen

Book Quote:

“…freedom comes in paradoxical forms. One man’s arbor was another man’s cage.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Mike Frechette (AUG 14, 2009)

For fifty years, John Updike served as our peephole into the sordid affairs of middle-class American suburbia, particularly the angst that, according to him, plagues men at all stages of life. Admirers mourned his loss, wondering who could now possibly serve as our literary guide through terrain that has already been mastered. Author Robert Cohen appears to be rising to the occasion, at least with his newest, bitingly witty novel Amateur Barbarians.

Teddy Hastings, one the novel’s two main characters, comes “from strong New Hampshire stock.” A societal pillar, Teddy has stoically endured – and sometimes enjoyed – a sedentary life raising a family and acting as principal at the local middle school. Instead of traveling and writing himself, Teddy has spent his free time reading the adventure stories of history’s great explorers. Now fifty-three years old and his brother recently dead, Teddy teeters on the existential brink, embodying “that familiar, uninspired thing: a middle-aged man.” But whether it’s the fresh wit Cohen brings to this character or our continued fascination with the male midlife crisis, Teddy does not fail to captivate our attention for his half of the story. Readers well-versed in this genre will instantly recognize Updike’s influence, not only in terms of subject matter but also writing style and presentation. The same bleakness and depressing yet humorous ironies that define the Rabbit series are present from Cohen’s very first paragraph:

Teddy Hastings hopped down from his treadmill after burning off the usual impressive quotas of time, mass, and distance, and reached for his bottle of purified water. If there was one thing he was good at it was running in place. Outside, the woods were dark along Montcalm Road. Sleet, like an animal scrabbling for entry, tapped against the panes.

Teddy’s counterpart, Oren Pierce, comprises the novel’s other half and helps distinguish the book for readers of Updike, whose most memorable characters more closely resemble conventional males like Teddy. An overindulged, restless intellectual, Oren has spent his twenties bouncing around the world and seeking refuge in graduate programs he can’t ever seem to finish. Now thirty years of age, he feels disappointed with the aimless trajectory of his life thus far. Almost on a whim, Oren leaves New York – his current city of residence – to chase his girlfriend Sabine to Carthage, New Hampshire – Teddy’s hometown – where she has been teaching at the local college. When she gives up on Oren and leaves for another opportunity, Oren decides to stay and “do something actual for a change,” as he tells Teddy in his interview for substitute history teacher. After Teddy suffers his own breakdown and takes a leave of absence, Oren gets a big taste of the actual, thrust into the consuming leadership role of Acting Vice Principal. Their social roles now reversed, Oren and Teddy set off in opposite directions for essentially the same thing – peace from an angst that nonetheless makes them such laughable characters.

Underneath all this existentialism Cohen is also telling an engaging story, sprinkled with mild foreshadowing and a setting that stretches all the way to the Horn of Africa. Structurally and temporally, the novel employs the age-old technique of beginning “in medias res.” The chapters alternate between Teddy and Oren, and their stories fully intersect only once near the beginning of the book during Oren’s interview. Though the universe they inhabit is far from magical, their sole meeting seems infused with some type of cosmic significance, a point in space and time where they mystically trade identities as they each battle with their own existential turmoil.

The story also extends beyond the male characters of Teddy and Oren, although such singleness of focus would appropriately reinforce their self-absorption. No character escapes Cohen’s satirical gaze, including Teddy’s wife Gail whose marital fidelity is tested over the course of the novel. Even more peripheral characters are targeted, such as Teddy’s college-age daughter Danielle, arrogantly smug now that she’s held a few sick babies in Africa and can use the word “signifier” intelligently in conversation. With Amateur Barbarians, Cohen has taken a smart, funny look at contemporary America and some of its more neurotic inhabitants. Updike fans will undoubtedly rejoice in Cohen’s literary voice and his newest creation, but only time will tell if he can step out from the shadow of such a looming figure. If not, at least he’ll never have to gaze at his bookshelf like Teddy and ask of himself with disappointment, “Where was the book with his name on the binding?”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: Scribner (July 7, 2009)
REVIEWER: Mike Frechette
AMAZON PAGE: Amateur Barbarians
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Robert Cohen (This is all I could find… this author keeps a very low profile.)
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our short review of Here and Now

Read an excerpt from The Varieties of Romantic Experience

Read our reviews of some of John Updike’s books:

The Terrorist and  The Widows of Eastwick,

And some Philip Roth books (because you never think of Updike without thinking Roth) :

Indignation and Everyman

Bibliography:


August 14, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Drift-of-Life, Humorous, Literary, Satire, Sleuths Series, y Award Winning Author

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.