Holy crap. Adam Wilson, you are a twisted, weird mother-effer and I’d like to take you to dinner. Don’t be fooled by the spring green cover or the soft edges of this paperback, because Flatscreen is a disgusting, amazing, low-blowing sack of a narrative. It’s a relentless kick in the groin. Wilson doesn’t waste any time stinging you with a sadistic wit that conjoins familiarity and truth. Unfolding the chaos, stillness, and gunplay would be an injustice to Wilson and his crew of hopelessly crazed characters who are desperate to detach. Flatscreen is a clutter of masterfully orchestrated actions that inevitably bind the players ever more tightly to one another.
Protagonist Eli Schwartz has decided to cease any attempt to earn a college degree. As a twenty-year old chubster, he lives just outside Boston’s puritanical reach in a wealthy Jewish suburb. He can count all of his romantic overtures on one plump hand. Stuck at home and jobless alongside a mother whom he aches to understand, he’d be disillusioned with his high school peers, frankly, if he gave a shit. In one instance, Eli imagines someone looking at him thinking, “you, poor boy, are locked away in paralyzed infancy by your drugs, your inadequate hygiene, and your idle, treacherous heart.” He is a self-described “lethargic non-Lothario.”
His impulsive mind fires like a Tourette-ridden person beyond his years, drifting amidst erotic fantasies of food and fornication. He means well but can’t make a move without soiling the present social situation. The best pickup he can muster involves weed and his basement.
And the reason for his social ineptitude? A disgruntled divorce has left Eli and his mother living like estranged Craigslist roommates in his childhood home – the only evidence of the family that tried and failed to live there before. His father has a replacement family and sees Eli for secular holidays. His brother, Benjy, wears eau de douche and spends his time trying to transcend his degenerate link to the Schwartz name. Unlike Eli, Benjy is a showman of superior talent and looks. That is until he takes a moment to unclench his butt cheeks and accept his designated spot in the gene pool next to Eli.
Wilson diffuses the familiar family dysfunction with Seymour Kahn, a crinkled, washed-up television actor confined to a wheelchair. But what Kahn lacks in mobility he makes up for in blunt reflections and rampant drug use.
Kahn, warped and wiser for it, would outlive us all in the fast approaching apocalypse. There he’d be drinking scotch with the cockroaches. If God used dust to create Adam, then Wilson used dirt to create Kahn. However crass of a character, Kahn remains an inspiration and testament to perseverance. He reaches out to Eli, recognizing a kindred spirit when he sees one, saying: “I’m dragging behind, holding on for dear life. I can see from the look in your eyes that you too are a failure in that regard.”
In the midst of slow-roasting suburban stew, Kahn offers Eli friendship. And coke.
Eli rarely ventures into the real world on the haunches of Boston’s Green Line for fear of being wedged between bro-ish Boston Sox fans who revel in their Fenway-bound fraternity. To compensate he Facebooks and romanticizes the lives of those around him. For sustenance and sanity, Eli cooks. He thoughtfully crafts recipes for imaginary dates for very real women. The author creates an organic, grass-fed sanctuary in Eli’s life: Whole Foods. The part-time domicile for the Spanx-brigade is where Eli finds temporary inspiration wandering the aisles until he checks out and rejoins reality.
When he’s not cooking or loathing, Eli befriends other outcasts. A rich stoner, his tatted girlfriend, and a sad slender girl named Alison are among the ranks. They recognize Eli as the funny one, which he likes until he realizes “It meant I was going to have trouble getting laid. It might have even meant I was fat.”
The plot thickens until it eventually collapses on top of Eli and any ambition he ever possessed. Thanksgiving, a day of familial obligation, turns Eli’s world into the kind of barbaric slam-fest you would never hope for at your own holiday table. Throughout the evening, he offends any and all in his toxic orbit. It’s a hazy series of events including a Viagra homecoming, a black eye, tequila, another black eye, breaking and entering, a bullet wound, and a phallic drawing on his cheek for good measure.
After the whirlwind that was the holiday, Eli vows to rein it in. He resembles Kahn in handicap and tendency only temporarily. As Eli attempts to stand and haltingly place one foot in front of the other, we empathetically struggle with him. We want the chubby, hopeless romantic screw-up to win.
Characters ebb and flow out of his life. But Eli, from his suburban throne, channels his energy inward. Wilson leaves us with an open, vaguely hopeful ending for a character we see as a small reflection of ourselves. Flatscreen is sneakily heavy and profound, but Wilson never abandons Eli’s comedic, youthful narrative. Wilson’s references are refreshing for a twenty-something reader. He gives credit where credit is due to the icons and films that have shaped Gen Y. Finally, someone who understands the glory that is Jenny from the Block! Through the eyes of an apathetic underdog, Wilson captures the thoughts and fears of a generation. He’s an articulate and astute voice for today as well as, apparently, a total bad-ass. The story’s moral is simple: “everyone just needs someone to make them feel like death isn’t a better option.”