A very bad trip – The Boston Globe
As the pandemic enters its third summer, the pandemic fiction is just beginning. And while new variants (variant novels?) will be with us for years to come, I now guarantee that no other character will react to lockdown quite like Ethan Fawcett, the protagonist of Katie Hafner’s curious debut novel, “The Boys “.
I can’t offer much evidence for my claim without revealing an outlandish plot twist that Hafner tries to cover up for over half the novel, so let’s cover what I can talk about, and then I’ll vaguely touch on how everything the intentional obscuration influenced my reading.
One thing the novel makes clear from the start is that Ethan is anxious. He is struggling with “more than [his] part of dislikes”, and hates to leave anything to chance. Sometimes this need for control has consequences, and when the novel begins in mid-2022, Ethan is estranged from his wife, Barb, and told by a travel company, in no uncertain terms, that his “special set of needs” while on a recent cycling trip to northern Italy with his sons made him a customer no free in the future.
The fateful trip was Ethan’s second with the company, a repeat of the honeymoon route he and Barb took in 2018. As a couple, they’ve always been a study in contrasts. They met at a start-up in West Philly where Ethan was dealing with technology and Barb was working part-time while earning her doctorate in psychology. He is a planner. She is spontaneous. She was raised in the ease of the suburbs, her childhood “rich with happiness”, “warm and like a womb”. He was raised by his grandparents in a “relentless whiff of tragedy” after his parents drowned on vacation in Hawaii when he was 8. him as an adult.
Ethan moves in with Barb two months after their first date, and six months later they are engaged. After the Italian honeymoon, they talk about having kids, and Ethan, being Ethan, goes ahead and protects the house while they try to get pregnant. After several fruitless months, they discover that he cannot have children. They discuss their options, but haven’t made a decision together when Ethan returns from a business retreat in late 2019 to learn that Barb has decided for them, introducing him to Sam and Tommy, 8 or 9-year-old twins.” adopted”. from Russia… on a temporary basis.
The subsequent onset of the pandemic is a professional boon for Barb, an expert on the effects of loneliness, especially for the elderly, and Ethan retreats into his own world with the children, becoming “a total hermit.” Even after vaccines become available, he remains isolated, continues to homeschool the boys, worries about their allergies, and skips Sunday dinners with Barb’s parents.
Barb becomes frustrated with Ethan’s time with her children, which seems odd to readers as we don’t quite understand why. She postulates a few psychic terms, but they are irrelevant to her objections. The pair go to therapy, but Barb walks out, which is, to say the least, confusing behavior from a psychologist. Ethan is of no help to readers, offering a pabulum like “in my silence lie the seeds of self-destruction. Even then, I couldn’t help stealing the present to pay off the debts of the past. Barb moves out, Ethan books the rehearsal of the bike ride with the boys, and whammo: the tenor of the novel completely changes.
The move to Italy eliminates Barb’s already infrequent voice and temporarily replaces Ethan’s narrative perspective with that of Izzy, a tour guide whose name has been announced a few times in Ethan’s obtuse memories. From Izzy’s interactions with Ethan, we finally learn what caused her marriage to explode. And it’s a doozy of a plot straight out of a Jordan Peele or M. Night Shyamalan movie. Unfazed, Izzy accepts Ethan with a combination of 21st century feel-good, everyone’s right to their own reality and tolerance of Catholic descent, telling her boyfriend that Ethan is “a living, breathing definition of a parable. ”
But he is not. Ethan has a mental health crisis and needs help he doesn’t get from anyone in the novel. And the main reason it doesn’t feel like anything more than narrative convenience, because Barb is a successful psychologist witnessing Ethan’s actions in their home. She just couldn’t say anything in the first half of the book, because that would spoil the surprise Hafner was hiding.
Mystery and misdirection are great when they have a point, when they turn the screws and give satisfactory resolution. But Hafner hides Ethan’s behavior for one reason only: to mislead the reader and create artificial tension. The deception does nothing to improve the ostensible story about childhood trauma, lockdown isolation and mental illness. Instead, the preservation of the twist comes at the expense of the narrative, preventing intriguing and valuable discussions about the pandemic that as a society we need to start having as we try to process the past few years. Some of these questions are raised indirectly, but they are not explored further in order to preserve the masquerade.
But if you like your fiction full of weirdness and don’t overthink every narrative decision, go ahead and throw “The Boys” in your beach bag. Just make sure you don’t get them wet. Wait what? Exactly. What?
By Katie Hafner
Spiegel & Grau, 256 pages, $27
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.