by Jesse Browner
published by Europa Editions, September 2011
Book 59 of 2011
Full disclosure: I was treated to a truly excellent meal at this author’s apartment in the West Village a couple of months back. And I hosted an event for his previous novel The Uncertain Hour, which involved delicacies inspired by Roman feasts. I also read that earlier book and loved it in a way that has haunted me. So I am predisposed to like anything Jesse Browner does, as he is an excellent cook and a lovely human being.
Luckily the book was excellent. Like The Uncertain Hour, Everything Happens Today takes place over the course of a single twenty-four hour period. In the former novel, it was the last day in the life of a Roman dignitary who had been essentially ordered to commit suicide by the Empire. In the latter, it’s a pivotal day in the life of a high school senior who has just lost his virginity and is struggling to figure out what kind of person that makes him, not to mention what to do about his dying mother, his lackadaisical father, his out-of-reach crush, the unexpected girl he has actually slept with, his winning but vulnerable younger sister, and the essay on War and Peace he’s supposed to hand in the next day.
I love the conceit of a life metonymized in a single day, especially in the case of a character like Wes. He is very precisely an over-smart high school student, with all of the idealism and sensitivity that implies, as well as all of the posturing, self-consciousness and self-righteousness that go along with it, in that flavor specific to being seventeen. I particularly loved watching the evolution of his emotions from the abstract worship of a Buddhist mother figure (his crush) to the undeniable connection with an unexpectedly insightful and funny rich girl, who is fighting her own battles (absent parents, a bad reputation) but understands Wes slightly better than he understands himself.
It’s a bit Holden-ish, natch (especially Wes’s Phoebe-like younger sister, the repository for his longing for innocence) — but it’s no sin to be influenced by the most influential novel of contemporary adolescence. Browner’s take on the internal life of an urban kid in the 21st century is satisfying without being pat, with believable philosophical ruminations alternating with, of course, a good amount of time spent on preparing a particularly complex and fraught dinner. It’s a small gem of a book, and one I wish I’d read as a teenager myself, though I probably understand it all better in hindsight.