June 2007

Elizabeth Bachner

fiction

The Tourists by Jeff Hobbs

The tourists in Jeff Hobbs’s debut novel are four Yale graduates in their late twenties in millennial New York City. “I couldn’t free myself from that muted feeling of detachment,” says the nameless narrator, a struggling journalist who slept with the charismatic Ethan Hoeval in college and has spent the past eight years pining for the beautiful Samona Ashley Taylor, wife of David Taylor, a woman he kissed only once at a drunken party while listening to Guns N’ Roses. “The feeling of being rooted in a particular moment that was gone, the feeling of existing in an opportunity that you’ve already missed, the feeling of knowing how a single moment can ensure you’ll never get it back again.” Since college, Samona and David have settled into an unhappy upwardly-mobile marriage funded by David’s soul-killing job in finance, Ethan is a famous industrial designer, and all four characters exist in a kind of murky, vapid mediocrity that feels relentless. Even their incestuous and adulterous power plays have an aimless, dull quality, and lead to an aimless, dull denouement.

From Fitzgerald to Jeff Hobbs’s mentor, Bret Easton Ellis, the rich-kids-in-the-big-city-tortured-by-their-own-privilege genre has been one of my favorites -- there’s a delicious glamour to the stark emptiness of each successive lost generation, to their inescapable exile. The very title The Tourists speaks to the rootlessness and hollowness of these characters’ experiences (while traveling, Ethan notes that, “as long as they keep moving and don’t stop to think, they’re only tourists.”) The wunderkind rich white writers of each new generation struggle to redefine this angst again and again, and they seem to get better-connected every year -- Nick McDonnell, the 17-year-old author of Twelve, whose work was widely compared to Ellis’s Less than Zero, is the godson of Hunter S. Thompson, and 26-year-old Hobbs met Ellis through a mutual friend while working at a fundraiser and claims in his dedication that Ellis read The Tourists, “more times than anyone should have to read anything” and taught him, with, “extraordinary patience, how to write -- or at least how to try.”

The problem is that the spontaneous, spare poetry that gave Fitzgerald and Ellis’s youngest work a timely yet timeless freshness can’t be taught. Jeff Hobbs’s narrative lags, drifts and gets lost in banality. His prose can be turgid, and while the staleness, passivity and meaninglessness of his characters’ lives form the backbone of the story, the novel overall feels artless beyond the intentional blandness of the characters. In a statement titled “On Mentoring Jeff Hobbs,” Ellis writes of an early draft of The Tourists that, “though I found it riveting and new and provocative and impossible to put down once you picked it up, it needed work because of the tightrope Jeff was walking with this risky material.” It’s difficult to read this statement as a Brett Easton Ellis fan and not recall the hilarious scenes in Ellis’s most recent work, Lunar Park, in which the protagonist, a famous writer named Brett Easton Ellis, is drugged-up, disoriented, and teaching occasional writing classes in the suburbs, where he spouts platitudes to his protégés and is so out of it that he’s fuzzy on basic issues of authorship and reality. While Ellis had a different visceral experience with The Tourists than I did -- I found it labored, boring and difficult to finish -- it’s tough to make the argument that lost Yalies leading unfulfilling lives represent “risky material.” Ellis writes that the book will “cause dissent because it has a casual and very contemporary attitude toward male desire,” but in contrast to Ellis’s own Less Than Zero or The Rules of Attraction, The Tourists uses closeted, adulterous male-male sex as a plot device and counts on the reader’s titillation and shock. Decades after the Brat Pack writers, this reads as amateurish and effortful rather than organic and true to the characters.

It’s easy, while reading The Tourists, to imagine pages of notes on chronology and sequencing [“I vow silently that I am never moving through the doorway of Stanton Vaughn’s apartment (even though later, at one point, I will)”], and to feel Hobbs’ earnest hard work and patience at the task of Writing a Novel. If The Tourists had the electricity and spontaneity of Less than Zero or of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, or the devastating satire of Caitlin Macy’s Fundamentals of Play, its conception wouldn’t seem so important -- as is, it’s hard to understand why someone would call it a “bold debut” or hail it as new or provocative. Everyone involved, from Ellis to Simon & Schuster to the young author himself, hungers for a brilliant, generation-defining debut -- but The Tourists isn’t that book.

The Tourists by Jeff Hobbs
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 074329095X
336 Pages