hardcover, Shoemaker & Hoard
$15, 256 pages
Young male angst, and all of its plot elements, permeate the early sections of Radiant Days: Hard drug use. Sex. Travel abroad. Masturbation. Violence. Obsession with sluts. It’s a bit much at times. Maybe many of us in younger days dreamt of being yanked into adulthood by heroin use and international travel with an oversexed vixen, but in print it comes off as a bit sophomoric.
Still, University of Montana MFA alum Michael FitzGerald has crafted a gripping tale—one that speeds up as it goes along, almost as if in the practice of writing it he was learning his craft. And, in the end, he shows flashes of such unmistakable literary talent that he outgrows the boyish premise of his book.
In Radiant Days, bored California dot-commer Anthony Sinclair flees a meaningless, if affluent, life to travel with a brooding and beautiful stranger, Giesela, to her home in Hungary near the war-torn Balkans of the 1990s. Ostensibly they’re off to search for her lost son, but it almost goes without saying that Giesela’s actual mission is sinister—she buys and sells war-zone orphans—and she has little romantic interest. Nonetheless, Anthony, desirous of love, or meaning, or something, persists in believing she’s attracted to him, and aids Giesela’s dark mission.
While hobnobbing in Budapest’s expatriate party scene, Anthony meets English war correspondent Marsh Mathison, a salty and sarcastic trickster with a “cherubic” face. Mathison anoints himself Anthony’s mentor and tries to steer him away from Giesela, including, at the novel’s denouement, urging him toward the Yugoslavian civil war’s front line.
Anthony represents the uninterested, restless generation of over-educated slackers of pre-September 11, the protagonists of Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith movies, and the heirs to Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis’. Unlike McInerney and Ellis’ nihilistic and amoral characters, however, who fill their age’s moral void with sex, drugs and violence, FitzGerald’s characters are desperate to create order from chaos, meaning from institutionalized insignificance; sex, drugs and violence just happen along the way.
Like all of us slackers, Anthony’s quest for meaning is hopeless, as evidenced in two scenes contrasting Anthony’s innocence with the realities of armed conflict. At these points, FitzGerald’s craft is admirable and the impact of his prose palpable as he silences the patter of his protagonist’s endless introspection and poses the gorgeous contradiction of Anthony’s desperate need for order and the degenerate entropy of a war-ravaged nation.
First, Anthony has a vision of sorts in an ancient Croatian church housing a Catholic relic. He feels “the sensation [of] being pulled into the sky,” his “flesh becomes weightless fluttery stuff, the walls of a beehive.” And then he “bask[s] in some big warm thing and everything inside me feels light and sparkly, and I’m supremely confident the world is good and that there’s something bigger than us and that thing is good.”
This scene contrasts with an ensuing visit to a nightclub called La Conception, where a garish “Mother-of-God motif” predominates and waitresses wear grotesque nuns’ habits with openings that reveals silver thongs, bikini tops and knee-high white boots. Here Anthony meets Dimir, a Croatian with a NYU graduate degree in philosophy who tells a shocked Anthony about first killing as a teenager, murdering an 11-year-old boy and childhood friend.
The first scene is full of delightful, playful, almost childish language—“fluttery stuff,” “sparkly,” images of bees and warm blankets—and full of the belief something good lies behind it all. Against this comes Dimir’s blunt speech—“I fucking love killing Serbs,” he says—jarring in its simple language and evocative, debased imagery. The point here is Dimir, even if he is a sociopath, is worth two Anthonys, and they both know it.
That self-knowledge allows readers to accept Anthony. While he’s seemingly untouched by the stark realities of the conflict and human suffering around him—a long train of shuffling refugees calls to mind comparisons to temp workers—he knows he has no meaningful experiences from his sedate past to help him comprehend war.
Only under fire from Serb militants does Anthony cease his incessant musing, replacing self-reflection with mindless terror and fractured eyesight. Anthony, just as we do, finally lives his story. And as soon as he recovers, he’s overcome by his need to flee.
Flight is an appropriate place to take leave of Anthony because, despite Radiant Days’ increasingly powerful tension and descriptive might, the main character doesn’t really change by book’s end. He escapes from growth and you get the impression he’d repeat his follies given the chance.
Anthony only takes charge of his destiny when abandoned to it. Otherwise he allows himself to be pulled through the story. FitzGerald, on the other hand, gains vigor and direction as the story progresses, a sure sign that the author benefited from his character’s journey, even if the character did not.
Michael FitzGerald reads from and signs copies of Radiant Days Sunday, April 1 at Shakespeare & Co., 109 S. Third St. W. 7 PM. Free.