Though Dwight Wilmerding, the directionless hero of Benjamin Kunkel's promising debut novel Indecision, swims in curious eccentricities all his own, it's hard not to see him as something larger than himself, like the exemplar of a lost generation. Countless first-timers have fashioned their personal variation on the Holden Caulfield coming-of-age story, but Kunkel's rambling, discursive narrative has a sneaky sort of ambition that isn't really clear until the end of the journey. A 28-year-old without the ability to commit to a career, a woman, or a decision as simple as what to sample from his Thanksgiving plate first, Dwight cloaks himself in irony, but he's beginning to recognize that he's in a quagmire, and the book follows him step for step. In Dwight, Kunkel chronicles the birth of a new earnestness that's currently evident in musical acts like Bright Eyes and Death Cab For Cutie, though it takes some time for him to graduate into caring about something.
Putting up with Dwight isn't easy, however. Like many relatively privileged young New Yorkers, he splits the rent with several roommates and spins his wheels without much consequence, still the undeclared college student years after getting his diploma. Fired from his dead-end technical-support job at Pfizer ("I got pfired," he says with a laugh, even though the "p" is silent), Dwight has reached a crisis point in many facets of his life: His parents have gone through an ugly divorce, he nurtures some weird incestuous feelings for his sister Alice, and he's carelessly stringing along his beautiful, willing sort-of girlfriend Vaneetha. His chronic indecisiveness about these and other issues lead him to turn to his roommate Don, a pharmaceutical-company employee who hooks him up with Abulinix, an experimental drug that will theoretically help unclog his mind. The new pills coincide with an impromptu trip to Ecuador, where Dwight seeks to get reacquainted with an exotic girl he vaguely remembers from high school.
Far from a smooth-running operation, Indecision seems at times like the work of a literary critic who's been exposed to far too many coming-of-age debut novels, and the book's self-consciousness can be crippling to the narrative. Whenever Kunkel flashes back to some illustrative scene in Dwight's life, the momentum stops cold, and he gets special points off for his broad treatment of Dwight's father, a supposedly bankrupt trader who drives a luxury car and spends his days on the links. Yet the book picks up once it gets to Ecuador, and Dwight finds the perfect foil in the form of a pretty Belgian intellectual whose earnestness and social concern put his Yankee narcissism into sharp relief, nudging him toward genuine self-actualization. Rarely do novels so readily take the form of their protagonist: Behind that seemingly transparent veneer of slacker charm, the kid has some potential after all.