Iast Resort, Avi Deitsch’s first novel, is an almost brilliant work. The story of a man’s holiday romance with a woman who turns out to have weeks to live, inspired a bidding war between New York publishers, sold for almost seven figures and is set to become America’s next nerd bestseller.
Meanwhile, Last Resort, Andrew Lipstein’s debut novel, is a more modest book. Funny, stylish and accomplished, it’s a satirical hug about the tangled roots of creative inspiration and the indignities of authorial ambition. There is a centuries-old – some would say moth-eaten – tradition of novelists writing novels about novelists, from Roth and Updike to Rooney, Ferrante and Jean Hanff Korelitz. Are these books questions about the moral and material conditions of paternity or exercises in literary navel-gazing? And who the hell wants to read another?
For much of this novel, I was surprised to find myself thinking: yes. The protagonist, 27-year-old Caleb Horowitz, is part of a trendy Brooklyn scene where people “dress like artists on the weekends but spend their weekdays on Slack.” He works at a startup called Parachute which, according to his boss, was “building something”, but “what we were building was, I was starting to understand, hard to understand”. When a breakup leaves Caleb on the brink of breakdown, he finds himself wanting to get on the ejection seat of his own life.
This is when he meets Avi, an old college friend who, like him, has literary aspirations. Avi shares a story he’s been working on based on a recent trip to Greece, and Caleb, seeing its potential, rewrites it, keeping the subject matter but changing “point of view, tone, texture, speed.” Soon he has a novel, Last Resort, for which he is offered a sensational publishing deal. But before he can sign it, Avi confronts him about the “stealing” of his story and offers him a deal: Caleb can keep the money, but Avi will be recognized as the author of the book, with his name and photo on the cover. Caleb agrees, but has second thoughts as his friend reaps his due praise, forcing him to confront the question: what matters more, money or literary fame?
Lipstein sets up this dilemma and traces its fallout, with a formal and stylistic bluster that more seasoned novelists might envy. But at some point, the question I found myself faced with was: who cares? Money and fame undoubtedly have their benefits, but by themselves neither can give life or new meaning. Lipstein knows it: Last Resort is an unforgiving satire of a generation of millennials who fear their lives lack gravity and emotional depth. Each gesture is inflected with painful self-awareness, a first approximation of feeling: “She rolled her eyes, or did something else that I can’t describe but that’s what she meant: I roll my eyes.” When Caleb reaches a fleeting moment of real connection with another person, he struggles to find his words: “I wanted to tell him that last night was great, that it made me feel the opposite of emptiness .”
Last Resort is banking on the hope that knowing enough about knowledge and being ironic enough about irony can help a novel transcend its own self-awareness and point to something deeper. You won’t read a more brilliantly executed literary frolic this year. But at some point, you may find yourself craving something a little more… well, you know, whatever the opposite of emptiness is.