July 2003

Iris Benaroia


Important Things That Don’t Matter by David Amsden

Important Things That Don’t Matter does matter. I thought at first it didn’t. The 2003 release by David Amsden (who writes for New York magazine) chronicles the life of a narrator whose name we never learn. And it doesn’t matter. One soon gets sucked into the frenzied quicksand of his prose. Namelessness doesn’t work for most books, but it does for this one. Amsden, it turns out, is the grand puba and like all good explorations of the self he doesn’t hold back a smidgeon, diving into the ugly, the awkward and the difficult. There’s a visceral quality, like you’ve just put your tongue against the coldest, tastiest chocolate mint ice-cream.

Scenes melt into the next in this dialogue-driven feast that shoots from the hip. In fact, Salingerites may feel miffed by the resurrected Holden Caulfield feel. I was at first. But Amsden has a way of winning you over. He’s so funny. This scenes comes towards the end when he meets with his father in a restaurant:

“I just liked looking around the place. You should have seen the hostesses – you’d have given up a thumb to suck one of their toes. And everyone was so clean-looking. You know the type, like they’d just sacrificed the chance at ever having interesting thoughts in their heads for eternal youth. Half of them were wired with one of those cellular phones that you jam right up in your ear. You know, so it was impossible to determine if they were talking to the person next to them, or someone on the phone, or if they were just babbling to themselves like some homeless person.”

The book, in its exploration of the mundane and the marvellous tribulations of being young in the late eighties/nineties is perfectly captured, and you’ll love its verisimilitude. Nirvana, brown furniture, outlet mall eateries, Top Gun, a LeBaron convertible and a Honda prelude, all make cameos.

It opens at the airport. The year is 1986 and Amsden, 5, and his mother are at the airport waiting for an absent father. Dad soon arrives, filly in tow (Shirley who lives in the basement with a her “nine-foot German” boyfriend). Shirley, who used to have an address at Hugh Hefner’s mansion, and dad are fooling around and Amsden sets the tone up front. Dad’s no good, but we feel sorry for him. He fumbles through life, drinks too much (martinis), works in fastfood joints and loves his son, but doesn’t grasp that cocaine, alcohol and pornography are not listed in Dr. Spock’s manual. Juxtapose this with Dad’s goodness, which Amsden ensures we hear about. We don’t choose our parents, Amsden suggests, and the dysfunctional love in their own way. He never descends into sentimentality or castigation, and I’m happy about this. He tells it like it is through good, gripping dialogue. Moments that seem to mean nothing mean everything. These episodes are everyday and fleeting like the bubbles we blew in childhood. Pathos runs in this scene, as dad gets drunk in a bar and ends up on the floor with Amsden:

“Hey…hey, I’ll tell you somethin,’…See this boy? You see this boy? Do you see this boy? This boy’s gotta mother. This boy’s gotta mother who used to be my wife…I’d still love her if she’d let me…Gimme a hand here, feller…..But when I reach down and take his hand he yanks hard, pulls me right into him. I felt all his ribs bending under me, like about to crack. …I hated it down there on the floor, but I couldn’t’ tell him because now it was me laughing so hard I couldn’t speak.”

And his characters are just quirky enough to be believable. There’s cousin T.J., gayer than Liberace. (“You wouldn’t think it, because of the way he looked, all gentle and soft, and because he knew how to make origami flowers and fold napkins into swans, but T.J. was into wrestling.”) But it’s not Hulk Hogan T.J. wants to spar with. It’s Amsden and you can guess T.J.’s motives. Pinning him, he cops a feel of the confused teen. But the transgression is not treated as such. In fact, Amsden relays it as though he were describing a walk in the park. Sometimes your cousin diddles you, it’s part of life, it’s important but it doesn’t really matter.

But it’s the sex scenes I like best, because they capture excitement and trepidation – the seedlings of our first sexual encounters. Again Amsden is after pure emotion. “The harder we kiss, the warmer we get…My hands go up the back of Claudia’s jacket, up under her shirt, the strap of her bra running up under my fingernails….” And on another page he confesses, “Before Claudia, my experience with kissing wasn’t so impressive. That’s because it was confined only to those long-glorious make-out sessions with my bathroom mirror.” You can hear the ghost of Caulfield behind “glorious.” I dare any reader who remembers the newborn-chick awkwardness of first sexual encounters to not be moved. This may be sandbox-stuff but Amsden handles it like an adult. Like youth, this delicious ice-cream cone of a book melts away. But its taste lingers long after.

Important Things That Don't Matter by David Amsden
William Morrow
ISBN: 0060513888
272 Pages