James Gregor's debut novel 'Going Dutch'
Going Dutch casts a scintillating eye on the queer urban millennial male, throwing him into an impossibly complex love triangle and finding, within it, room for social critique that stings. James Gregor’s debut novel swerves with a queasily, intimately familiar form of discomfort: the yearning of a generation faced with grim job prospects, heightened virtual connectivity, the seemingly endless and lonely and unbridgeable space between the excitement of singledom and the comfort of monogamy. It’s a book of deceptive ambitions, a breezy page-turner that, every few pages, slides in an observation that inspires some combination of laughter, mortification, and admiration.
A broke doctoral student in medieval Italian literature (“ostensibly”), Richard Turner rides Going Dutch through the madness of contemporary New York. He lives with a roommate he can’t stand in a shabby Brooklyn apartment. His academic work has totally stalled. Dating apps are beginning to yield more misery than pleasure. He’s still pining for his best friend, Patrick, a bubbly overachiever who leaps into new relationships with bewildering speed and confidence. Or maybe Richard’s just pining for someone. In the Brooklyn neighborhoods he frequents, he contends with the contrast of the fulfilled — eating “caramelized bacon,” riding “Schwinn bicycles” — and, well, himself. “The line from Dante came to him. There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery,” Gregor writes to set up his most lingering gut-punch. “There is no greater sorrow than to feel like a horny loser in Brooklyn.”
Luckily for Richard, the rom-com gods are looking down on him. In Going Dutch’s opening chapter, he goes on an app-facilitated date with Blake, an inscrutable “actor” whose standards seem a bit above Richard’s diner-dinner preferences. The night ends abruptly, and Richard doesn’t hear from him again. Another prospect, gone. But then: a chance meeting at a club, where Blake expresses renewed interest, and a spontaneous hookup is manifested. Blake confesses he’d wanted to stay in contact but feared the window had passed; he admits he’s actually a well-off lawyer who performs for fun on the side. Richard realizes his luck with men has finally turned.
Only, in the interim, he’d entered into another relationship — one far more complicated, dysfunctional, and (alarmingly) compatible. Also: It’s with a woman. The lady in question is Anne, a colleague infatuated with Richard. The two strike up an unlikely, unspoken alliance: In exchange for his company, Anne — a brilliant, dogged student — “helps” Richard with his research and writing, effectively allowing him to present her work as his own. Their dynamic immediately swells with confusing intimacy. In Anne’s neuroses and intensity, her oddities and intelligence, Richard finds a kindred spirit. They dine in expensive restaurants around the city (Anne pays), travel as far as Montreal, banter about academics and art and politics; a drunken romantic encounter sets the stage for regular, clumsy, sober sex. Soon, they’re together constantly. “There was an equivalent freakishness,” Gregor observes, “they were two animals of the same species who had sniffed each other out in the blind murk of a swamp, not even realizing or caring how dirty they were.”
But then Richard starts seeing Blake seriously too. In this tension, Going Dutch plays on a delirious high, darting around Manhattan and Brooklyn, trying to keep up with its hero’s impossible scheme. There’s a force to it, a kind of revenge element. Having been punishingly alone in New York for so long, Richard is addicted to the attention, to being wanted, to holding his secrets. Gregor’s feel for the character’s manipulations is slick, if a little severe. The read on Richard, smart as it is, feels more sociological than empathetic. And Anne, in all her harrumphing moodiness, delights on the surface, but she gets the short end of the Gay Best Friend stick; her demanding nature verges on mean-spirited caricature.
Indeed, Gregor oscillates between the kind and vicious versions of this story. He’s more comfortable within the latter but fights to edge the former to victory. The drama between Richard, Anne, and Blake peaks when they have their inevitable bump-in on the streets of New York. They could only be kept apart for so long. They dine together, Anne and Blake at first blissfully unaware of the other’s prominence in Richard’s life. (One exemplary interaction: Anne scolds Richard, “You know how you are when you don’t get enough protein”; in response, Blake “snorts.”) The whole scene is fabulously awkward, reveling in Richard’s predicament. How Gregor loves to make his reader squirm. Or, that’s the easy, cynical way of looking at it. Maybe Gregor is after something deeper. After all, there sits a doomed romantic triangle, each member desperate to find love at a time when real connection is harder to achieve by the second. And yet, each believes, they’ve done it. Why would any of them let go? B+