To be honest, I’m sick of the trend of books focusing on college-aged characters. Too often, the central importance is being smart. Characters do various nutty things and then deliver clever lines that scathingly indict the establishment and show how much better they will make things when they get their turn at running the world. Really, we all know that things won’t be changing much. However, Here is How it Happens (2013) by Spencer Dew is a very different kind of book. Though its characters are of early college age and do indeed make some scathingly clever observations on the decaying world around them, they aren’t delivering them from safe and smug, self-satisfied positions. These are not, thank goodness, hipsters.
For an example of who these characters are, one need only look at how Dew has crafted the relationships: once pretty artifacts from their high school years, these relationships have now rotted from within. The following section concerns the relationship of the character Courtney, related to the narrator Martin:
“So,” I say. “Sloan. Tomorrow.”
You shake another cigarette out of your pack, tap it filter down on the table top. You flick a bit of loose tobacco from the lip of paper at the end.
You squint across the restaurant, cradling the unlit cigarette in your palm. You bite your cheek, and you shrug.
“The other thing, kiddo. I mean, He is always saying things like that. Sure, he’s never come down to visit, but he has called and told me he was going to come down to visit. It’s just–I know this, but I let myself get worked up, maybe even excited. As if things aren’t what they are.
“But then he’ll call either really late tonight or really early tomorrow morning. He’ll have a perfectly good excuse for not being able to make it down, and he’ll be sad about it.
“He’ll say, ‘Babe, babe, I’m sorry, but…’ That’s sort of a code, I think. That’s how Sloan starts all of his substantive statements to me.
“‘Babe, babe, I’m sorry, but I just can’t wear those things.
“‘Babe, babe, I’m sorry, but I just can’t pay my part of it just yet.’
“The boy is like one of those sweepstakes mailings. He doesn’t mean to come across as such an asshole so much of the time. It’s just, you know, the worst thing: The way I love him.”
You lift the candle to your face. Fire, you inhale.
Of course, Martin’s relationship isn’t any better. At some point, and he isn’t exactly sure how it came about, he just stopped taking his high school sweetheart’s calls.
A particularly interesting aspect of the text evidenced above is how Martin refers to Courtney as “you.” Courtney is the only character referred to in the text in this fashion, indicating that the book is actually addressed from Martin to Courtney:
Your cigarette is burning, is half gone. I watch the tip of it as you lift it to your lips, the fire as you inhale, the ash as it grows.
You pull as if you could take away more than burnt flavor and a vague buzz. You wrinkle up your nose, shielding your eyes with their own skin as paper and tobacco replace themselves with gray. The substance becomes intangible, a network of dust. You flick your fingers and it disappears.
You squeeze my hand in yours, biting down on your lower lip.
This narrative strategy becomes more interesting as it becomes apparent that Martin wants Courtney instead of his girlfriend. Perhaps the book itself is somewhat of Martin reaching out to Courtney, even beyond their closeness within the text, though it is an extremely odd outreach if it is so intended.
Returning, though, to my thoughts on the position from which these characters judge the world, they understand the lack of value in...