“Hurt people hurt people,” the damaged Roger Greenberg tells a pre-Frances Ha Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg. Stiller’s character, a fortyish former indie rock star turned carpenter returning to California after years in New York, writes angry correspondence to local newspapers, letters of complaint to companies about poor service or accommodations and spends most of his time not doing stuff. The dissolution of his old band, in part because he harbored fears about more or less selling out, might have seemed like a sign of integrity back in the day, but now his extremism seems to stem from some sort of pathological state of arrested development. He exudes passive aggressiveness and desperation, while tossing out clichéd catch phrases from Lifetime dramas like the one quoted in this paragraph’s first sentence.
Though Greenberg proved at best moderately successful, its main character Roger embodies the mentally off balance, soured iteration of a twenty first century archetype: the adult adolescent male in his 30s and early 40s. Played for laughs in Judd Apatow movies like Knocked Up and I Love You Man, what in one context might be funny becomes annoying and off-putting in another. Think of it this way: Adam Sandler cut his cinematic teeth on Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996), the main characters of each serving as arrested development man prior to the Apatow explosion. When Paul Thomas Anderson tweaked the formula in Punch Drunk Love (2002), Sandler’s laughably obnoxious but good-hearted man-child hardly seemed funny. Barry Egan struck viewers as sadder, lonelier, and more prone to outbursts of violence than filled with hilarity. Likewise, Greenberg is a man who when his band never made it, could never quite figure out his way or simply sleepwalked through the next twenty years with little to show for it. Greenberg’s eccentric, perhaps mentally ill persona, stands as an emblematic figure representing the darker side of the aging hipster. Roger had his moment, a record offer, and he couldn’t do it. The world moved on, but Greenburg, remains mired in the past, if not overtly, than by the situation and psychological harness it metastasizes into in the ensuing decades.
With all this in mind, enter John “Gianni” Lenza, a mediocre textbook salesmen in Brooklyn. “Had textbooks become my sole purpose in life? What a tragedy that would be; I wasn’t even a good salesman. The Willy Loman of the textbook world,” (141) he tells the reader at one point. While Lenza never comes close to the kind of opportunity that Greenberg brushed aside, he parallels the Noah Baumbach creation in a number of ways. Lenza, the main character in Richard Fulco’s humorous first novel There Is No End to This Slope, bumbles his way through a wife and a lover and finds himself adrift on a wave of melancholy, alcohol, and prescription drugs, reserving clandestine moments of self love spying on his voluptuous neighbor Heather, aka TNT, before reaching his nadir.
“Look here’s the deal. Here’s the update. I didn’t pan out. Okay. I did not pan out. But what the hell does that mean anyway,” Lewis “Teabag” Minor announces to classmates in Sam Lipsyte’s hysterical 2005 novel Home Land. Minor spends much of the book writing letters to his high school’s alumni bulletin Catamount Notes, long, discursive, inappropriate letters that document his downward spiral but also the immorality and hypocrisy of his fellow alums and of all those around him. Sure Catamount Notes might amount to “’cheery falsehoods . . . the high-fives and pompom struts of communal denial,” but even as Minor mocks it he continues to pen letters. “Home Land is an energetic campaign against the art of the sunny update,” noted New York Times critic Lizzie Skurnick in her review of the book. “Miner is less a loser than an avatar of failure, a high priest of defects. What he truly wants is to enlighten those of us who have yet to acknowledge our own flaws — in other words, almost everybody.”
Like Minor, Lenza has not panned out, though from his own description, it’s not clear that was ever in the cards. Growing up Italian American on Staten Island, John played in a high school rock band and went to keggers in Fresh Kills. As an adult, Lenza’s main activity in the novel is to pine over the loss of his high school best friend and possible love interest Stephanie, whose untimely death as a teenager he still feels responsible for. “The Atlantic Ocean was deep, dark and vast. Looking into it was like peeking into the future. At one time, I might have had an idea of what I wanted my future to look like,” Lenza recounts in a high school flashback, “but when Stephanie died everything began to look deep, dark and vast.” (197)
Unlike Greenberg, Lenza does not waste time with deranged letters to the editor, but perhaps more disturbingly, continues to write short notes to Stephanie even into his 30s and 40s. As one can imagine this proves a distracting and ultimately damaging course to follow in one’s adulthood, a fact that plays out throughout the novel. Importantly, Lenza carries with him all the tell tale signs of Generation X, a group depicted simultaneously as both cynical and idealistic. “By the spring of 2003, still in my first year of marriage, I was doing little more than watching Law and Order reruns and whining about my dead end job,” he narrates. “I’m a fairly intelligent guy perhaps too intelligent ever to amount to anything.” (21)
As for his family, his sister Gina “never liked” him and his father thinks him weak. “Maybe he’s come face to fact with that awful truth, which is my presence makes him uneasy,” Lenza tells the reader. “It’s not like I see him all that much anyway. He spends most of his time in the basement, watching horse racing and watching wrestling on a fifty two inch flat screen television.” (254) As for his mother, she remains doting – “’You never could look after yourself … that’s why I’m here,” – but not always the open minded. His marriage to non-Italian Emma hardly made his mother happy. “’Italian girls make the best wives. Your grandfather married an Italian girl,” she tells Lenza. “Your father married me. You’re supposed to marry your own kind. I makes life easier.”(17)
In terms of its place in novelistic tradition, There Is No End to This Slope combines aspects of other works to create its own milieu. Lenza carries himself like an aging, middle class bridge-and-tunnel Holden Caulfield, though admittedly one more aware of his own inadequacies and promising, himself and the readers, to become a playwright. As in the aforementioned Home Land, Lenza’s become a man stuck in place, though perhaps not as morally devoid as Minor and his peers. If American Psycho’s Patrick Batemen deconstructs Phil Collins and other 80s music in ways that reveal his own clinical derangement, Lenza’s reactions to others characters’ musical tastes operates similarly, revealing more about him than them. “I should have taken her love for Madonna as a sign; there were countless blood red flashing signals and titanic billboards, but I was pretty adept at being blind to them,” he reminisces about his first wife Emma (12). When the kindly Heather, nicknamed TNT, takes an interest in him, by this point Lenza’s downward spiral has accelerated and despite his own shortcomings he finds rather superficial reasons to be reticent toward her, “Heather’s taste in music was unsettling, but her penchant for the color of pink was even more so. To augment her pink sweatshirt, she wore pink lipstick, pink earrings, a pink headband, pink shorts over pink Lycra tights and pink running sneakers. She looked like she had stepped out of Madonna music video.”
Though one might point out that for a man with a drinking and prescription drug problem, no job, and an ever-diminishing grip on reality, Lenza might also be a tad superficial and even arrogant in such evaluations. After all, he spends the entire novel pretending to be a writer but the closest he comes to producing a play is when his friend, Teeny, writes one about Lenza’s life. Still, John Lenza, for all his annoying qualities, also knows just how pathetic he is and it is this acknowledgement that makes his travails both poignant and funny. Then again while Lenza might not be an unreliable narrator like Lawrence Miller, the critical gender studies professor at the heart of James Lasdun’s 2010 work The Horned Man, his version of events suggest some deviation from reality. In The Horned Man, the reader comes to realize by the novel’s conclusion that Miller’s narration obscured and distorted more than it illuminated, carrying a certain tragic menace. Here, Lenza’s interpretation of events works to bring out the absurdity of his own situation, namely how he simply cannot stop his own downward inertia even as those around him practically shout the simplest of advice for improving his situation—namely, stop writing letters to a dead girl.
None of this is to say Fulco has simply repackaged these earlier works or even been influenced by them but rather to note that a generation of writers seems to be channeling a certain ethos and perspective about humanity in the late 20th and 21st century; this ethos emerges not so much as a ideology or manifesto, but rather through references and signifiers. Bateman’s plasticity and coldness in American Psycho reflects the serial killer within and symbol of where Reagan America and supply side economics had led us. In contrast, Lenza represents the eternal struggle of Gen X, lodged between two giant cohorts – boomers and millennials – with distinct world views and pop cultures. Lenza traverses a generational middle ground. Gen X has clearly established its own lexicon of culture, but one bounded by boomer nostalgia and resplendent millennials with their deranged optimism and tight skin. This might explain why Gen X seems at once hopelessly cynical while troublingly earnest. Lenza falls back on boomer standbys in moments of distress: “I listened to Jazz whenever I was felling pensive; classical indicated that I was felling creative; Motown conveyed my happiness. The Beatles were usually in heavy rotation whenever I was feeling hollow.” (14) The occasional chapter title like “The Freewheeling Gianni Lenza” provides further evidence of this referential existence. To describe Lenza as “rockist” would be too on the nose, but hey that too remains part of his problem.
Jagged, messy romance punctuates much of the novel. Lenza meets his first wife in one of literature’s more accurate depictions of public school education as teachers trade gossip, hook up, and bitch about their superiors, all while wondering, is this job worth it? “The friggin’ queen wants us to tech a unit of grammar. Do you believe that shit? I could care less about transitive verbs,” one clandestinely tells another. (2) Eventually for his future wife, it’s not and she quits. Emma, in her own way as unstable as Lenza, and her behavior can be described with a simple adverb, “too.” On Sunday evenings, Emma wallowed in “too”, drinking heavily and falling into inebriated despair. “Too much self-pity. Too much life. Too much Merlot. Too many ‘things.’ I feared I had gotten on the Cyclone at Coney Island and I couldn’t get off.” (14) Later he becomes involved with a married actress that predictably ends poorly. Even the psychic heroin junky that Lenza repeatedly encounters tells him as much.
One of the novel’s most intriguing aspects is how Fulco serves up a postmodern smorgasbord of Gen X cultural Easter eggs: the Cars, Christopher Cross, the Ramones, the Met’s ubiquitous Lee Mazzilli, the 2003 NYC Blackout, Sex and the City, and 1980s Madonna among others. When he narrates the story of a pool birthday party from his youth to his then-wife, Emma, one can see from where Lenza draws his sense of detachment. He tells his mother how much he wants the Cars’ Candy-O for his birthday but instead he receives a Barry Manilow tape with the “supersavers“ sticker still in tact.
For lifelong New Yorkers or even those like this writer who lived there for nearly a decade during the Aughts, the pace and change washing over the city come into full view. He used to walk the streets of pre-swanky Dumbo, when Gleason’s Gym had been the neighborhood’s “moxie and edge, but by 2005 it had become a relic out of place with organic markets, bookstores, antique shops, condos, galleries, and hip café’s,” he reminisces. “Even the term gym was antiquated; fitness club had become the euphemism.” His homeless buddy Richard articulates Park Slope’s arc from the 1980s to today fairly simply. Back then “folks in this neighborhood stopped from time to time to chat with me. These people today, these rich aristocrats are too busy to talk to the neighborhood homeless dude,” Richard laments. “They’re afraid of me. Lock me up, throw away the key. I’m an eyesore, an urban blight a drunken fool, a menace to society. That shit ain’t right. The poor fucked up folks in the shelter are more pleasant than these here rich motherfuckers.” (72) When romancing his married actress girlfriend, Brooklynite Dawn Bello, they bond over memories of when Smith Street was more an adventure than “a stretch of trendy overpriced restaurants.” Williamsburg’s ascension as a hipster enclave caused no small amount of head scratching, and when real bonafide corporate capitalism claimed the borough it came as a surprise. “We were shocked at the construction of a Fairway and an Ikea in Red Hook, a West Elm in Dumbo and a Starbucks in Greenpoint. We had both been raised in a more modest Brookyln, Manhattan’s stepchild, long before it became fashionable.” (89)
Like the persona attached to Gen X stereotypes, the novel ends ambivalently. No spoilers here but needless to say John “Gianni” Lenza neither ends up a winner nor, a complete loser. The book’s journey seems more the point, though what shape one would assign to the narrative’s trajectory remains less clear which is essentially how life works. There is no narrative until we look back and craft one. In this way, the story’s three-year arc hardly aligns with any rise and fall narrative, but rather a series of jabs often foreshadowed by the omniscient heroin junkie, Havannah, who appears periodically throughout to proposition John and fill him in on his future.
On the Replacements’ classic debut album, Let It Be (thirty years old this year) lead singer Paul Westerberg leaned in on “Unsatisfied” and released the clarion call of a generation. “You look me in the eye/Then tell me, that I’m satisfied/Hey, are you satisfied?!” The things we reach for, the future we hope to grasp? “Everything goes/Well, anything goes all of the time/Everything you dream of is right in front of you/And everything is a lie.” Knowing this makes satisfaction a bit harder and when Westerberg’s rage fades into blunted frustration, he can’t even bring himself to sum it all up. “Well I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied/I’m so dissatisfied/I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied/I’m so unsatisfied/Well, I’m a, I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied/I’m so dissatis, dissatis, so/I’m so…” he trails off, undermined by his own lack of agency. This could be John “Gianni” Lenza’s theme song, but one laced with humor and pathos and perfectly suited for a trip to Staten Island’s beaches this summer or that long vacation to nowhere. I mean “Unsatisfied” might be considered a bit of a bummer, but it might be one of the most inspiring despite its lack of aspirational message. John Lenza’s life might have its down moments, but like a down and out Don Draper, he remains a compelling contradictory figure. How’s that for Gen X?