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Ambitions Paperback – August 29, 2014
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REVIEW BY JEFF-CHARIS CARLSON, in the IOWA CITY PRESS-CITIZEN:
About the Author
Joseph Dobrian is a novelist, essayist, poet, and business journalist, also known as a political activist and TV talk show host. Previous books include the novel Willie Wilden and the best-selling collection of essays, Seldom Right But Never In Doubt. He ran for Mayor of New York City in 2009, and now lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with four rescue cats.
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The narrator may yearn to plunge into the messy disorder of life, love and passion himself, but for whatever reason he cannot, will not, or dare not. (Or, he did in the past and the resulting disappointments, burns and scars have caused him to vow, not always on a conscious level, that he’ll never subject himself to such vulnerability again.)
The paradox is that this emotional, almost clinical remove makes him an effective portrayer of the human passions and foibles he avoids himself. One of the most compelling aspects of this type of novel is how the narrator often manages simultaneously to maintain a cold-eyed, pitiless view of his characters, but at the same time clearly feels (and conveys to the reader) not only disgust or condemnation, but also insight, understanding, and, most paradoxically, compassion. Often the compassion has to be read between the lines.
Joseph Dobrian’s “Ambitions” is a truly outstanding example of this type of novel. Apparently a thinly disguised roman a clef (or so this reviewer speculates), it’s written in a low-key, conversational style which, having lived in Michigan for three years, I’d term “Midwestern.” The narrator, Andy Palinkas, observes and chronicles the joys and sorrows of the family next door, particularly a talented, sensitive teenage daughter with whom he maintains an unusual yet intense bond (to the point where the reader ultimately realizes that Andy has in many ways been her lifeline as she grows into adulthood), and other colorful characters in a small Midwestern university city.
The great achievement of this novel (and what lifts it heads and shoulders above the typical fare atop the best seller lists), is in how its peculiarly deadpan, almost autistic tone somehow manages to illuminate the sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious aspects of the various characters. This happened, and then that happened, and he said this, and she said that, and Andy thought this to himself. Then, later, what you read hours or days earlier sneaks up on you and you find yourself ruminating, almost brooding, on the heights and depths and extremes of human behavior conveyed in its spare style. At the same time, one clearly feels the sadness, regret and human wisdom of the narrator. Sounds like Hemingway or Fitzgerald, you say? Yes. That is the mark of a great storyteller.
What I like most about this novel are two things: First, the amazing amount of intrigue, plotting and counter-plotting, that goes on with this family and the people who are connected with them. This story like a game of "Risk" or "Diplomacy" played on a local level! Second, there's the elegance of Dobrian's writing. He writes very plainly. He's easy to read and easy to follow. At the same time, he chooses his words and builds his sentences and paragraphs meticulously, like a sculptor creating a multi-figure statue that conveys amazing tension and emotion. Just brilliant writing.