November 20, 2014

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X is surprised to find himself enjoying months of sober, monk-like solitude. He gets up feeling good, he teaches, he works out, he sexts a couple of married ladies, and then he spends the evening Skyping with a Russian girl he met the week before he left Vodkaberg. “€œThe Girlfriend,”€ as she’s called in the book, is so nice, quiet, and provincial that she’s a shock by contrast with every other woman he attracted in Russia. He’s not superstitious, but he finds it strange that she came along just as he was ready to try out the quiet life”€”in another country.

He uses his vacations seeing her, either back in Vodkaberg or on package holidays, though she’s never quite comfortable away from home. As his 41st and 42nd birthdays pass, he tries a few times to dip back into debauchery, but it feels weird, and his body fails him: he blacks out on mere beer and gets caught almost cheating. But the Girlfriend doesn”€™t consider dumping him. She goes on doggedly trying to convince him that he’s not such a bad guy, and that he deserves a nice girl. In time he almost believes her.

It takes him less convincing to decide he doesn”€™t deserve to wake up with a hangover every day. This is a refreshing reversal of the typical “€œmidlife crisis”€ narrative we”€™re used to hearing from the baby boomers: instead of acting stupider as mortality approaches, X wonders whether he might enjoy living life on its own terms, with a (relatively) clear head. Not that it works out marvelously well for him, but at least he gives it a try.

He tries to get the Girlfriend into the States on a student visa so they can make a life together”€”but she’s denied the visa. They attempt to come up with other plans to stay together, but she’s stubbornly reluctant to consider any scheme that doesn’t include clinging to her boring but safe job as an accountant in Vodkaberg.

Instead of spiraling too far into drunken self-pity while he waits for her to make up her mind, X floats back to his hometown in the Dirty South, where he learns to properly use a firearm, makes a small fortune writing porn, and looks after his Parkinson’s-stricken dad. There X’s experience with drug-addled former colleagues comes in handy: he sniffs out the fact that his grieving stepmother has been slipping Dad her Vicodin to try to bring back the good old days. “€œLook,”€ he tells her as she cries into her rum: “€œunfortunately … none of us are ever going to be young again.”€

Like most autobiographies these days, Requiem sometimes overshares the go-nowhere anecdotes that fill most of life: he recorded his exact order one day at a Subway, for example, which gave me the unpleasant sensation that I was suddenly employed as a cashier. But this tendency has at least been pruned back since his earlier books. And even if X remains more or less disillusioned in the end, it’s still fun to watch a writer springboard off his tried and true formula to explore new ground.

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