A murder investigation disguised as a teacher-pleasing ‘oral history project.’
Sam Munson’s “The November Criminals” is either a very short novel or a very long college application essay. “You’ve asked me to explain what my best and worst qualities are,” Addison Schacht, the novel’s narrator and main attraction, writes in its opening sentence. His answer requires telling the full story of how he, a pot-dealing, Virgil-loving, SAT-acing high-school senior, attempted to solve the murder of Kevin Broadus, a fellow student at his Washington, D.C., school.
It all sounds like “Encyclopedia Brown: The Burn-Out Years,” but the plot of “The November Criminals” is never the point. Instead, it’s the vehicle, an obstacle course where Mr. Munson can show off Addison’s sharp and agile voice. That voice entails tons of tangents, italics and words you can’t print in a newspaper, all of which are unified by Addison’s industrial-strength cynicism. He spends a good portion of the novel judging other people, and they spend a good portion of the novel deserving it.
By far the worst offenders— worse than the minor drug players, worse than Addison’s bumbling father—are the teachers and students at Addison’s school. At a student assembly to honor the murdered Kevin, a girl named Alex Faustner starts “complaining about how ‘all this’—she meant singing ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’— violated her First Amendment rights. . . . In addition to being a huge [worse than you think], Alex is—I’m sure you’re astonished to hear this—one hundred percent, rest-of-society-agrees beautiful.”
But Addison criticizes the assembly along these same lines. And when he makes fliers for his murder investigation—disguised to his teachers as “an oral history project,” he says, because “I knew the phrase would turn their gazes glassy with delight”—Addison finds himself staring at a sign hanging over the copying machine that says: “Be Unselfish.” The sign, he muses, is “part of the larger official message hawked by our administration: selfishness is the highest evil. Which means, if you think about it, that all private desires participate in evil.” He adds: “The urge to deface that sign is the strongest feeling I have about my school.”
So which is it? Are selfishness and solipsism generally permissible or should they be restricted to our own frontal lobes? Can we mock the pretension of “exceptionless equality” while still struggling toward some kind of personal evaluative standard? “The November Criminals” comes at these questions from about 50 different angles. Addison never quite formulates a final answer—much less tries to live by it—and that’s one reason he’s so captivating. In his Latin class, Addison rails against a fellow student (Alex, again) for prattling on about how “The Aeneid” “glorified violence”: “No, man, you’re missing the whole point. You can’t apply our virtues here.” But Addison also realizes that nothing in this statement obviates the need to sort out what exactly our virtues are.
As with most first novels, “The November Criminals” contains some repurposing of life experience. Mr. Munson grew up in just the sort of place that his narrator describes as home: “a tree-heavy upper-middle-class neighborhood in Washington, D.C.” They both applied to the University of Chicago in 1999. (Mr. Munson graduated in 2003.) But the most interesting bit of Mr. Munson’s background is that the author worked as a researcher for CNBC host and devoted supply-sider Larry Kudlow and as an editor at Commentary magazine. Every so often, spurred by some kind of creative liberal guilt, someone will ask: Where are the conservative novelists? I can’t speak directly to Mr. Munson’s politics, but it’s pretty clear that “The November Criminals” takes aim at a lot of liberal pieties—everything from Diversity Outreach (“just as horrifyingly inept as its name suggests”) to a history teacher who worships Wilson, Kennedy and FDR (“that’s verbatim; she actually said holy trinity“).
More important than the author’s political leanings, though, is the fact that Mr. Munson does this as a novelist and not as a pundit—he dramatizes his debates, keeps them entertaining and leaves them unresolved.
“The November Criminals” tackles plenty of other important issues, including Jewishness (Addison loves Holocaust jokes) and race (Kevin is black). The book gets a little preachy toward the end—it does start to feel like an essay. But Mr. Munson packs in enough funny moments, enough surprises (notably a short and genuinely affective section on Addison’s mother), and enough satisfying resolutions to more than compensate. And then there’s the humor. After a disquisition on the male teenager’s sexual stamina, Addison explains: “I’m just trying to get everything down, so that you can form a clear picture. My best and worst qualities.”
Mr. Fehrman, a writer in Milford, Conn., is working on a book about presidents and their books.
Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703615104575328924038262334.html