Everybody needs a hobby. Chances are, whether it’s ice climbing or raising kinkajous, Henry Bay has taken a stab at your favorite pastime.
The peripatetic editor at the heart of Charlie Haas’s witty and endearingly patriotic novel, The Enthusiast, spends his young adulthood on a tour of hobby magazines, from Kite Buggy to Cosy, the Magazine of Tea. Of his boyhood discovery of the former, the grown-up Henry says, “Of course there was a magazine; there’s a magazine as soon as five people find a new way to hurt themselves.” And Henry has worked as associate editor for them all.
Henry grew up in a California housing development in the 1980s, “under a sun that made the new houses age faster than Cadillacs. There are two house models, the Ponderosa (tan shingle, tanner stucco) and the Klondike (the Ponderosa reversed, with an extra half-bath), alternating for miles, with an occasional frying toddler on a Big Wheel for color.”
His dad works for a firm whose accounting practices resemble Enron’s, where he models the latest in sartorial elegance for middle managers: Short-sleeved shirts with no jacket, but a tie and a tie-clip. “When he went out to lunch with his colleagues they looked like a roving band of assistant principals,” Henry remembers. Meanwhile, his gardener mother lugs eight-foot palms around and his genius older brother stares at thoughts beyond mere mortals’ ken. After the failure of Controlled Dynamics, his dad takes to sitting on a web chair in the garage while Henry rides his kite buggy through the deserted parking lot and dreams of revenge.
Haas, a screenwriter whose credits include such quintessentially 1980s artifacts as “Gremlins 2: The New Batch,” describes an employment landscape that will seem eerily familiar (especially to those of us who hail from the Mitten State): “The layoffs were killing the Valleycrest Mall, and all the local burger work had gone to 48-year-old physicists.” Henry’s dad winds up working at a salad bar in Altadena; Henry’s brother, Barney, gets into stem-cell research; and Henry drops out of college to work for Kite Buggy magazine.
And so, a career is launched – or stumbled upon. As Henry wanders from Crochet Life (at three days, his briefest stint) to Spelunking (where he finds an actual caveman living in a cave in Kentucky), Haas takes the pulse of America through its enthusiasms and Henry acquires a tolerance for truly wretched living conditions and an unexpectedly rich education. He also develops a deep love for small-town America – the kind of towns where people say, “I’ll meet you under the big clock.”
He’s genuinely enthusiastic about other people’s enthusiasms, at least in the beginning. “On the plus side, being in the enthusiasm business let me see people being happy, doing what their bumper stickers said they’d rather be doing, what they braked for. For a long time I was able to coast in the wake of their happiness. Winning the prize for biggest geode or scariest wipeout changed their faces, and I was there, writing down the shop talk of the work that’s not for money. It was a country of fevers, and I only had to deal with the harmless ones.”
Of course, living vicariously through even the most fervent hobbyists palls eventually, and Henry has to discover the central interest of his own life. Haas, who boasts a magazine credit – “Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing” – at which even Henry might have stared in awe, has created a warm, figuring-it-out-for-yourself novel that eschews the archness and condescension that mar indie movies like “Away We Go.” Henry is genuinely happy to be around people who care about something, and willing to try anything – even ice climbing – once. (The fact that he’s uniformly bad at all the hobbies is something he humorously shrugs off.)
There’s a subplot involving a Ted Kaczynski-like bomber, and Henry’s college friend Gerald pops up periodically to utter screenplay-style witticisms. But the ethos of “The Enthusiast” is probably best summed up by Henry’s first crush, Jillian, who says, “When people tell me their problems I want to say, ‘Buy a pair of hiking shoes and call me when they’re worn out.’ ” Or as Barney puts it on a childhood trip to the zoo, “All the animals had the same philosophy. It was, ‘I think I’ll go over here for a while.’ ” If, like Henry, you pay attention, you just might find something worth telling the rest of the herd once you get back.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor. She blogs at dogeareddossiers.blogspot.com.