Tuesday, October 28, 2008

When the White House Was Ours by Porter Shreve

If you look closely while watching old episodes of Star Trek, you’ll see the letters GNDN near various pipes and plumbing on the interior of the old Enterprise. It was an in-joke on the set. GNDN stands for ‘goes nowhere; does nothing”. That’s one of the first thoughts that came to mind after reading Porter Shreve’s latest novel, When the White House Was Ours.

The novel is described on the back cover as “loosely based on Porter Shreve's own childhood" (isn’t that what many novels are?). It was heavily reviewed in PW and Kirkus, et.al., prior to publication and blurbed by big names like Lorrie Moore and Jim Lehrer, so I figured his publisher was really trying to break him out with this book. The rub is, I got done with this one and remembered feeling the same way I felt
a decade ago after reading his debut novel, The Obituary Writer, : GNDN.

Shreve seems a capable writer and includes all the elements that should make for a good novel: lots of characters, both likable and un-, a few plot twists, a pair of hapless parents whose marriage is quietly falling apart, and a sweet, shambling kid who’s caught in it all, along with some relatable coming-of-age yearnings and pubescent angst.

It kept me turning pages, as opposed to putting it down and invoking my “fifty page rule” but there was just NO payoff when I finished. The central theme, his weird parents attempt at starting an alternative school in bicentennial-era Washington DC while struggling to save their marriage and family, didn’t make me care about them. The characters didn’t grab me or make me love them or hate them. His sister wasn’t even developed enough as a character to warrant inclusion (maybe his mom made him put her in the book). If this ends up being his "breakout" book, someone puh-lease explain it to me.

What's nutty is I'm likely meet him this weekend at a local book festival and I doubt I'll have the balls to tell him what I really think.

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