Charlie Haas, The Enthusiast (Harper Perennial, 2009)
Charlie Haas’ debut novel The Enthusiast is a study in presence and absence. The narrator Henry Bay, a magazine editor, spends his life documenting the obscure things other people fill their lives with (crocheting, tea, spelunking), yet the novel is divided into two aptly named sections that describe his own life—“Empty Orchestra” and “Empty Hand.” That’s not to say that Hass has written an empty novel; on the contrary, The Enthusiast is full of quirky characters, pleasingly simple small towns, and an intriguing mix of malaise and altruism.
Haas, who moved to California as a teenager, brings a distinctly bleached-out California vibe to his prose. When we first meet Henry he is also a teenager in California, living in a newly constructed boom-town dominated by a corrupt company—you get the sense that he is looking at the world through squinted eyes. Everything seems too bright to look at or process directly, and Haas gives us clean and modern, if slightly evasive descriptions which set the tone for the novel’s style and its narrator’s tendencies.
Henry, the younger son in a suburban family, is a child living in the shadow of his brilliant older brother, Barney. When their father loses his job at the corporate mainstay, their world is thrown into flux. Barney’s genius relieves him of responsibility and he is sent off to become a scientist who might actually save the world. Henry, on the other hand, has the much harder task of trying to save the family. After a failed stint doing pre-law in college (and trying to win back his father’s pension via the legal system) he quits trying to be a savior and runs off to join the editorial staff at a fledgling magazine, Kite Buggy. What follows next is a journey through Middle America and the passions that drive it. Henry, coasting on his fear of confrontation and the convenience of working for small ready-to-fold magazines, moves from one small town to another, covering the beat for Rock Hunter, Cozy, Ice Climbing, you name it… Haas gives us a clue to the source of this restlessness in a childhood conversation between the brothers at the zoo, which Henry initiates:
Do you remember telling me what the animals’ philosophy was?
Their philosophy? No.
Yeah you watched them all day, and then you said all the animals had the same philosophy. It was ‘I think I’ll go over there for a while’.
Henry is just such a creature, wandering the country while contending with a deep fear of his own maturation. As he moves from one smoke-stained apartment to another, learning arcane information about arcane activities, and playing guinea pig for extreme sports gear, Henry’s only mainstays are his college friend Gerald (a wry wit), his failed love Jillian (an Annie Oakley who insists on calling him Hank) and his brother Barney (whose work on stem cell research makes him a potential target for a Unabomber-like character). Not until he meets Patti and proposes to her does he settle in one place, a move which makes his life even more unpredictable.
Despite having spent years conversing with men who live in caves, tea gurus, and crochet-masters, little has prepared Henry to deal with his own family. His wife works as an ego-booster for extreme athletes and, once again, Henry is surrounded by the relentless enthusiasm of others instead of his own—but not for long. The events that unfold (and there are some dramatic, if contrived, surprises along the way) give him more than just an opportunity to use the obscure knowledge he’s acquired over the years; they help him find the very thing that makes him tick.
In a novel where years are measured by the model of rental car Henry drives (Spectra, Forester, Fit), Haas has whittled out a deep groove of emotion and humor that make The Enthusiast a worthy summer read.
Caroline Seklir is a writer based in New York City.