It’s rare to see a 56-year-old publishing a debut novel, but Charlie Haas has obviously gained a lot from his years as a journalist and screenwriter. He’s probably best known for his 1979 cult favorite Over The Edge, where suburbs drive the kids nuts, so it’s no surprise his first book starts in a similar setting. But The Enthusiast—while often very funny—is sneakily ambitious, spanning at least 20 years while pretending it’s up to nothing. The book has its flaws—liberated from the usual tight demands of screenwriting, Haas completely throws away any pacing, and the ending flirts with unearned melodrama—but there are no deal-breakers. It begins as mild entertainment and ends up, surprisingly, as a real novel with big goals.
Growing up in the fictional L.A. suburb Rancho Cahuenga, Henry Bay has no real interests. Through little more than sheer entropy and a chance encounter with the practitioner of an obscure sport, Henry quits the pre-law track and ends up writing for a kite-buggy magazine. For 10 telescoped years, Henry bounces around various esoteric, specialized publications, from Martial Arts World to Cozy, The Magazine Of Tea. He eventually gets around to marriage and familial reconciliation, but the deadpan prose makes it hard to tell that Haas is sneaking up on a target larger than journalistic satire.
His protagonist is mildly opaque; writing in the first person, Haas shies away from revealing too much about what Henry’s thinking. That’s as it should be: Henry is an observer by nature. Even when he melts into adulthood, he isn’t giving much away. The dialogue has the clipped, elliptical wit of updated noir (“Do you have a visitor badge?” “He can’t have anything on his nipples”), and the tale gets the rest of its juice from contemplating small, unlikely towns and trades. Because no dates or times are given, the only hint is when cell phones enter the prose; Henry’s suburban childhood apparently starts somewhere in the ’80s and ends up in the present day. By concealing his dates, Haas makes it hard to tell how much time is passing; only in the novel’s closing stretch does it become clear that what we’re reading isn’t just a picaresque ride through the weirder side of the magazine industry, but a super-extended coming-of-age story. And a good one, too.