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The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac Paperback – March 20, 2012
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Kris D’Agostino in his first novel uses Calvin’s story to explore a range of themes I personally found all too relevant, but what’s most striking about it is his examination of the particular experience of (one fairly limited slice of) millennials in early adulthood and the changed world around them as they grapple with it. He’s interested in the way that the post-collegiate years in which the expectation had previously been that you strike out on your own, start a career and a family, now often feature a period of extended post-adolescence. You go back to living with your parents, working a low-paying job and trying to figure out a direction that satisfies you AND works with the financial burdens getting your degree creates. He spends this book digging into the particular psychological challenges and disruptions that come with that time.
He’s also casting light on the financial insecurity that stalks so many fairly well-off families in this era, where a blessed suburban life is just one disaster away from being a looming nightmare of unpayable bills and home foreclosure. This is a novel about how the American Dream has been circumscribed and undercut, how the ceiling on what’s possible in your 20s has been lowered, and the generation that’s trying to deal with the consequences of that with no roadmap and years of social conditioning teaching them that what they’re doing means they’ve shamefully failed.
Calvin represents all those 21st-century college grads who’ve found the traditional pathways that their parents followed have been ripped away without being sensibly replaced, leaving them with vast freedom to choose a route for their lives in theory that in practice is inherently intimidating in its lack of guideposts and often does not come with the opportunity or ability to actually use it. Calvin can barely make enough to sustain himself at home and pay his student loans, and his hopes of escape seem at times almost childishly unrealistic even to himself. He doesn’t know how he can make enough to move out or qualify himself to get a better job, find meaningful work for decent pay, he doesn’t know what he wants to do and he doesn’t know that he’ll be able to find a job even if he can decide. And that’s all before he has to consider how pursuing his desire to grow up and build a life for himself might come at a cost to the rest of his family as they try to hang on to their home with his father out of work and a new baby on the way.
(As D’Agostino gives a few passing nods to here or there, this is not a universal story so much as it is very specifically the story of the upper-middle class suburban white male millennial, with just a bare suggestion for instance that Calvin’s single parent Salvadoran immigrant co-worker Angela might just be in a tougher spot than him. Since I happen to be part of that demographic, this book hit pretty close to home, but fair warning that that won’t inherently be the case.)
Through this big picture, D’Agostino dives somewhat unsubtly into some uncomfortable questions with no easy or standard answers for today’s rising adults. He looks at responsibility, and how you agree to accept it and are pushed in your 20s to make hard choices as to what your responsibilities actually are and who you owe them to. He questions how you find a purpose and a direction for your life if one has not already naturally presented itself to you in the course of your first few decades on the planet, and lets Calvin show the pervasive fear that attaches itself to those who haven’t found this and feel they should have. He grapples with the big questions of how you figure out what in your life is going to make you happy, and what to do when insurmountable barriers block you from achieving it. He examines what defines adulthood and maturity, and in particular whether for someone living as a grown-up in their childhood bedroom adulthood requires you to break out of your life and live for yourself, or if it requires you to put others first even if it means freezing yourself in an undignified, static position. He’s especially interested in the intertwined and perhaps socially ingrained desire of this demographic slice for control and certainty in their lives. Cal’s journey is in many ways centered on his need to come to terms with the fact that he both has to take on the things he can control and accept that there will be a lot of things he can’t, to stop indulging his fantasy of total control and final answers and accept the reality of change he has been resisting. And overhanging it all is the fact that unlike for instance his father Cal doesn’t have a socially approved script that will help him resolve these issues.
Calvin Moretti is our narrator, our only point-of-view character and our star shining so bright that every other character is pretty muted, and from the first line he’s a little hard to like. (In my case, this probably has a lot to do with the fact that he reminds me a lot of me.) He’s angry as hell and can’t come to terms with it, he’s contemptuous of a lot of the people around him who don’t deserve it, he’s petty and sulky, whiny and seems unable to hold himself accountable for the role he played in creating his own problems along with the broader circumstances. He’s frequently unkind and disrespectful to everyone he has to deal with. He’s self-indulgent, selfish, self-involved, and self-loathing, desperately fearful and indecisive and searching without ever really getting to the part where he finds anything. He badly wants to take the reins of his life, to do the right thing, to move himself forward, but he’s so stuck and unsure he can’t figure out how to actually do it. I see him as growing up and starting to take real steps forward over the course of the book, but it’s not altogether clear that’s true. It may be that I so badly want him to break free of the stasis he’s lodged in that I, like Calvin himself, am seeing progress in him that’s really not there. As someone who related to a lot of his struggles, it was hard not to root for him in spite of everything that made him unpleasant. But it would be easy to take a more jaded eye to his privileges and come away with this book feeling like what he really needs the most is a good kick in the ass.
This reaction at least may have been exactly what D’Agostino was going for. Not all of the issues I had with this book did. D’Agostino’s treatment of his female characters is decidedly unimpressive. I realized two-thirds of the way through that I didn’t remember Calvin’s mother Kathleen’s name, and it wasn’t really all that important that I didn’t. Kathleen’s lack of agency may have been purposeful, an illustration of a woman utterly bound to a husband who is failing and just trying to hold it all together under crushing pressure, but she is still someone who merited more exploring than she received. Elissa gets to be more involved and active, but remains underdeveloped, and her out-of-nowhere death in the book’s final chapters ends up reducing her entire life to moving Calvin’s story to its conclusion, rather than being about her and her own struggles. (Gabby is purely symbolic, but in her case I think that’s at least part of the point.)
Furthermore, the ending in general is I think accidentally more ambiguous than D’Agostino intended. We are led to believe it’s this huge moment for Cal, that faced with the Morettis losing the house and caring for Elissa’s baby he has finally accepted the reality of a life he can’t control, the reality that life will change no matter how carefully he crafts it, and a life that in the immediate future will be intimately tied to his family. He accepts responsibility and adulthood, even at the cost of his own happiness, but still avoids choosing to commit to something for the sake of being committed to something, to being so obsessed with the idea of breaking out of his trap that he is willing to just settle into the first opportunity that presents itself. But so much of the book is about him swinging back and forth on his self-described seesaw, from acceptance to resistance, from one direction to the other to a whole new option. It’s not really clear why we are supposed to believe that his resolution is going to stick this time around, other than the fact that there are only a few pages left in the book… and that the alternative is too disheartening.
At the end of the day, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac reads like a book Jonathan Tropper would have written if he were born a decade or so later and was still honing his skills, and as a Tropper fan that’s mostly a compliment. It’s noticeably undone by the accidentally vague ending and the eyeroll-worthy forced plot twist D’Agostino took to get there, but ultimately I related to this book more than I was comfortable with, and it’s the first one I’ve read in a while that I felt some call to read again. He has some real insight about this particular life experience, and he gets a lot of the emotional truth of it right. A solid read for the uncertain well-off young white male millennial in your life. Probably not for you if that description caused your blood pressure to spike.
Every character is an exaggerated stereotype drawn from the head of how an elitist modern twenty-something views the world. It really feels like the author was really trying to wink at the readers through the text, saying, "You know this kind of person, and you hate them too!"
If you're the kind of person that gets high off of feeling smarter than other people because of your taste in music and fashion, or the kind of person who likes to make snarky comments about people behind their backs, or the kind of person who absolutely loses it when someone misuses the word "literally," you probably will actually like this book. If you're this kind of person, you won't admit it, obviously, but this book si for you. It's written for the kind of knows-better-than-everyone-else mindset you'll find in Silverlake or wherever it is "hipsters" converge in New York that seems to thrive among my generation. It is a book that revels in cynicism, snark, and a general hatred for humanity (except your friends, of course (except when they're being total 'bags)).
Would not recommend.