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Amateur Barbarians: A Novel Hardcover – July 7, 2009

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (July 7, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743230361
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743230360
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,608,078 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Artfully juxtaposing two contrasting personalities (as he did in Inspired Sleep), Cohen explores the terrain of male middle age in a novel that keenly observes the dissatisfactions of contemporary life. Teddy Hastings, the 53-year-old principal of a New England middle school, yearns for a grand adventure that would celebrate his manhood. Restless and impulsive, Teddy unwittingly causes a scandal that lands him briefly in jail. Disgraced and forced to take a sabbatical, Teddy leaves his wife, Gail, behind and flies to Ethiopia, where his college dropout daughter is working with orphans. Meanwhile, Oren Pierce, the younger man appointed in Teddy's absence, skitters through life in the same manner he has always done: perennially uncommitted, congenitally irresolute, though he is eventually forced to confront the limits of his desultory lifestyle. (Gail comes into play, as well.) Teddy's sojourn in Africa is the most dynamic part of the book, though it is Gail who acts as the novel's fulcrum; witty, sensual, focused and centered in reality, she remains an indelible figure as the two men in her orbit are diminished by the collapse of their dreams and expectations. (July)
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" How can a book about life's most serious questions contain so many big laughs? Only a writer of Cohen's wit and intelligence could have pulled it off. He writes with the acuity of a psychoanalyst and the compassion of a saint. His superb prose style is as good as it gets." -- Sigrid Nunez, author of The Last of Her Kind

"If there's one thing that Robert Cohen's protagonists are good at, it's running in place. His characters trail around a long list of aggrievements, especially when it comes to themselves, and are continually affecting in the comic resourcefulness of their dyspepsia and pessimism. What's most moving about them, though, is the extent to which, as they try to figure out just how this maturity business operates, they perform the act of faith of behaving like better people in the hope that at some point that behavior might become the truth. Amateur Barbarians is hilarious and wise and may be his best work yet." -- Jim Shepard, author of Like You'd Underst and, Anyway

"Robert Cohen's satirical eye is sharper than ever -- who else could have captured so perfectly the struggles of middle age? A very funny and very smart novel." -- Andrea Barrett, author of The Air We Breathe and Ship Fever

Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars
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See all 7 customer reviews
He captures prosaic moments with such poetically wrought prose.
J. Luiz
It's like I walked into and left in the middle of a conversation and never really figured out the ending.
Daniel A. Scott
I chose this book from my library's "new fiction" section, and the opening sentences drew me in.
a reader

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By J. Luiz on July 20, 2009
Format: Hardcover
No other contemporary author (or at least the ones I read and know of anyway) writes the way Robert Cohen does. He crafts the most beautiful, thought-provoking sentences I have ever seen. He can string out metaphor upon metaphor without ever overdoing it. To read his prose is to constantly marvel at the fertility of his imagination and the masterfulness of his artistry. His intricate sentences are never obtuse and always endowed with a light touch that keeps you chuckling as you digest the steady diet of brilliant insights.

In this novel, he explores the inner lives of two men -- Teddy Hastings, a 50-year-old disgraced principal of a middle school in northern New England, and Oren Pierce, a feckless 30-year-old who replaces him during Teddy's temporary forced "sabbatical." On the surface it's the tale of one man suffering a major mid-life crisis, while the younger man tries to gain a foothold on adulthood after years of living without direction and enduring numerous false starts. The novel is told from their alternating perspectives, although one chapter deviates from that as we go inside the head of Teddy's daughter Mimi on a night she's out partying with her high school friends. After so many pages of deep insight into the male psyche, it's a marvel to witness how effectively Cohen gets inside the head of a teenaged girl as she drinks with her friends and grows tired of an overly solicitous boyfriend, whose solicitudes are no more than selfish demands for attention and praise.

The novel has some intriguing twists along the way. Without giving too much away, there is a wonderful exploration halfway in of why Teddy got into trouble and had to spend several nights in a jail.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Mona on August 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I loved this novel. Packed with unvarnished temptation, bumbling foibles and sometimes depressing authenticity, this novel seems to be about nothing less than what is to be a man in Americana the end of the last century. With his lapidary precision, Cohen provokes laughter as much as rue. From a scene early in the book when Oren teaches Hawthorne's Wakefield to a class of checked out (and completely believable) middle school students to the erotic adventures later on, the characters' bonds, their midlife examinations and reconciliations strike us as once new and familiar. Many reviewers have talked about this novel in terms of male mid-life crisis, comparing it to Percy's MovieGoer and works by Roth and Bellow. But unlike most of his predecessors, one of Cohen's signature strengths as a writer is his uncanny ability to depict credible, female midlife heroines who, despite their exhaustion and mild cynicism, strike us as superior to their male cohorts in almost every way.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Book Him Danno on March 24, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Why I read It
Doing my usual scan of the new book shelf the word Barbarian jumped out at me, enough that I pulled it down. From there I was intrigued by the cover image of a lion on a couch so I opened the cover. The first words on the inside flap where from a review by the San Francisco Chronicle and said "A dazzling comic novel..." Good enough for me so I checked it out.

The Good
Parts of these two intersecting stories were fascinating. When Teddy seeks out his wandering daughter in Africa I was enthralled. And just sometimes the writing was almost poetic in its perfection. When Oren describes Don as "a know-it-all, a burnt-out case, a glutton who, having feasted too long on the same limited menu, fancied himself a connoisseur" you can picture that guy exactly. I also found a great Ralph Waldo Emerson quote I had never seen before; "Every ship is a romantic object, except the one we sail on." That was almost worth the read by itself.

The Bad
The plot was rambling, or maybe just not clear. I never really got the sense of what the author was trying to say. I also didn't get the sense of any conclusion. Two men on either side of 40 held together by the same job and woman; where are we going with that?

The Ugly (my opinion)
Parts of the book were brilliant. In fact if the story of Teddy and his daughter Danny in Africa had been the whole story instead of just 50 pages I would have loved it. Overall it was just okay and the San Francisco Chronicle and I clearly differ over the definition of a "comic" novel. That said I will try another of Cohen's books based on the strength of the bits I liked. Most reviewers disagree with me about this book.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By a reader on August 15, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I chose this book from my library's "new fiction" section, and the opening sentences drew me in. (In fact, budding writers should take note of how skillfully Cohen leads into his story and its themes.) I will be seeking out more of the author's work.
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More About the Author

Robert Cohen is the author of three previous novels, The Organ Builder, The Here and Now, and Inspired Sleep, and a collection of short stories. Winner of a Lila Atcheston Wallace -Reader's Digest Writers Award, the Ribalow Prize, The Pushcart Prize, and a Whiting Award, he has published short fiction in a variety of publications -- including Harpers, GQ, The Paris Review and Ploughshares. He has taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Harvard University, and Middlebury College. He lives in Vermont.