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David Amsden: Important Things That Don't Matter


Important Things That Don't Matter

Author: David Amsden
Publisher: William Morrow

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A New York magazine contributor at 19 and a novelist at 21, David Amsden is already predictably being hailed as a Voice Of His Generation. But most members of his generation would probably prefer to think that their voices are louder, sharper, less naïve, and more self-aware. Naturally, Amsden's publisher is simultaneously playing up his youth and his maturity, his Everyboy status and his individuality, his uniqueness and his similarities with the likes of Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, and Nick Hornby. But while Amsden's youth is apparently meant to be astounding, it shows through clearly enough in his guileless first novel, Important Things That Don't Matter. Amsden's first-person narrator is never named, which seems appropriate enough, considering that he never develops much of an identity. The book begins when he's 5 years old, returning from a vacation with his mother. When his father is late picking them up at the airport, he's aware that something's wrong, but not what or why, any more than he's consciously aware of why he likes to carry a red crayon in his pocket, or why he wants to put his foot on the luggage conveyor belt. As he continues through childhood and adolescence, his parents divorce, his mother steps back to give him space, and his alcoholic father bounces through a series of creepy relationships and dead-end food-service jobs, Amsden's protagonist persists in the same sort of puzzled, ingenuous haze. He has problems relating to women, but doesn't know why. He likes to drive quickly and recklessly, but doesn't examine his motives, even when he totals his car after his father mocks it. He deliberately cuts his hands and lies to cover it up, but he barely seems to notice that he's doing it. His contradictory actions reveal a mixture of affection, simmering hostility, and deep-seated frustration toward his father, doubtless shaped by a childhood intermittently spent in bars, or watching pornography while his father acquired drugs, but he rarely seems to move beyond passive observations of those actions. Ultimately, it's uncomfortably clear that the narrator has no more insight into his puzzling father than he has into his own behavior. Amsden accurately captures the unpredictable frustration of adolescence, of acting on instinct and missing the obvious formative press of a lifetime of instability and discomfort. But he never steps beyond that obvious level into the insight that would make his book a universal statement rather than a claustrophobic one. His individual vignettes are well-written and often queasily compelling, but the book's title provides a perfect summation of its contents. These may be some of the most important things that ever happened to the narrator, but he doesn't know why or how they shaped him. Because he never leaves his own well-insulated head, they don't particularly matter to anyone else.