I don’t have to like the narrator of a novel to be
engaged with it. Empathy certainly helps, but it isn’t necessary. I can think
of many wonderful books narrated by extremely dislikeable characters—one of my
all-time favorites, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, being
the obvious front-runner. Gabriel Travers, the protagonist of Songs for the
New Depression is no Ignatius J. Reilly, but he’s a despicable character
telling a marvelous story.
Gabe, a caustic, suspicious, mistrustful cynic, is dying of
AIDS, cared for by his boyfriend, Jon—who is the only person Gabe is unable to
alienate. He has nothing but scorn for his parents, Lenny and Gloria, his best
girlfriend Clare and the many tricks he has encountered. In every exchange that
calls for compassion or at least civility, Gabe manages to be sour, mean and
utterly unlikeable—which is what makes Songs for the New Depression so
The book is structured in a reverse linear fashion, each of
its three sections mirroring a song from Bette Midler’s third album, “Songs for
the New Depression.” It begins with Gabe in 1995 (the song is “Shiver Me
Timbers”), suffering from AIDS and trying to have a marvelous European vacation
with Jon as he tires and eventually gives out. The second part of the book
takes us to 1986 (the song is “Samedi et Vendredi”), Gabe in his
twenties—trying on and discarding faces and friends as he seeks to find his
place in the gay scheme of things. The third part takes place in 1976 (the song
is “Let Me Just Follow Behind”), and Gabe is in high school, recovering from an
abusive incident alluded to in the previous sections but explored in depth
This reverse structure is brilliant. Layers of the adult
Gabe are peeled back, but rather than revealing the root cause of his
cynicism—as common sense would dictate the author do—Edwards-Stout instead
reveals that Gabe has always been like this and was, in fact, worse when
he was younger, for no apparent reason. Sometimes he gets close to being human,
but he always ends up saying the bitter thing rather than the right thing.
But the bitter thing is, many times, the telling thing. The
trenchent observation. The unutterable truth that no one else dare speak
because its very blasphemy underlies a fundamental veracity. In this, Gabe is
fearless—refusing to sugarcoat or varnish his words to spare anyone’s feelings.
It is his largest gift and his biggest fault.
Full of wit, wisdom and woe, Songs for the New Depression
is an ugly yet irresistable piece of fiction. Buy it for someone you hate.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler