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In 'Indecision' Kunkel makes a decidedly indifferent debut

By Benjamin Kunkel
Random House, 240 pp., $21.95

Like the rest of the entertainment industry, New York publishing is forever looking for the Next Big Thing, the hot new writer with the great first novel -- and the younger and more photogenic the writer, the better. Of course, secondhand bookstores are littered with the first fruits of enterprising scribblers who published too slight a book too soon, and whom, in the words of A. E. Housman, ''renown outran, and the name died before the man."

Hopefully, a kinder fate is in store for Benjamin Kunkel's ''Indecision," the sort of slender, trendy tome that savvy marketers salivate over. Kunkel's debut novel is a brief, witty, occasionally insightful but ultimately vapid take of a spoiled young man adrift in a world of privilege and comfort. Narrator Dwight B. Wilmerding is a 28-year-old prep-school graduate and amateur philosopher, footloose in Manhattan after being downsized from his cubicle-bound job in tech support. Blond, reasonably good-looking, and covered in body hair, Wilmerding agonizes over his job prospects, his romantic choices (he suffers from a creepy attraction to his sister, Alice, for example), and where to live when his lease runs out. His roommate, Dan, a med student, diagnoses him with abulia, the abnormal lack of ability to act or make decisions. To counter this, Dan illegally ''prescribes" a new drug called Abulinix, which, within five to 14 days, ''should foster feelings of capability in the face of conflict." Kunkel's narrative departs from there.

The depths of upper-middle-class-white-guy angst have been plumbed to greater effect by the likes of John Cheever and J. D. Salinger, and Kunkel owes a debt to those writers. Wilmerding may be awash in designer pharmaceuticals instead of scotch, and wearing a frayed Brooks Brothers shirt instead of a peaked hunting cap, but he certainly aspires to take his place among those dysfunctional and troubled American types whose most pressing dilemma is how, when, and where to ''ask Dad for some money."

The trouble is, Kunkel's vivid descriptions, snappy patter, and sporadic gems of wisdom fail to cohere because they do not serve the story -- and that's because there really isn't one. Like the generation it simultaneously celebrates and mocks, Kunkel's novel is marked by its lack of ambition. It's the variety of a novel that gives it texture: well-differentiated characters, their individual voices, habits, and actions. Unfortunately, each of Kunkel's characters sounds like the same Ivy League graduate, and their predictable cruelty to one another flattens out the narrative arc, reducing the writer's commentary on human nature to a collection of smart-aleck aphorisms: ''During the Cold War you felt like you had a reason to get up in the morning. Now what have we got?"

Appearing on ''The Tonight Show" back when Steve Allen was host, a young Jack Kerouac remarked that his work was ''sympathetic." In a lot of what passes for literary fiction these days, Kerouac's sympathy -- for the world, for the human condition, for his characters -- has been replaced by cynicism and sarcasm, wry indifference, and self-pity. Even a comic novel must have a ''serious" purpose if it is to stake claims on the reader's time and affection. By making his protagonist an obsessive, incestuous, navel-gazing crybaby, Kunkel has created an insurmountable obstacle for himself and his novel. Dwight B. Wilmerding's ontological crisis is quite tiresome because even Mr. Wilmerding doesn't really care how it all turns out.

In his essay ''The Canon Under Siege," published as the introduction to ''The Best American Short Stories 1988," Mark Helprin lamented the state of contemporary fiction: ''Why are the characters . . . impotent, frigid, promiscuous, or all three combined? Why are their lives inextricably intertwined with brand names? . . . Why do they behave as if they are going to live forever and every moment will be a curse, rather than as if they are going to live for only a very short time and every moment will be a blessing?" Seventeen years later, having survived magical realism, minimalism, and other flashes in the cultural pan (see: reality TV), a great deal of American fiction still suffers from a lack of good, solid storytelling. In one of many passages that make Helprin sound like Nostradamus, Kunkel writes, ''I too could remember the days when fellow college students had listened to Nirvana, dabbled in heroin, gone on Prozac, and with a recession on and the job market looking bad, developed the fad of wearing mechanics' uniforms with blunt proletarian names stitched in cursive over the heart."

But Kunkel's novel also shows real promise, the hint of powerful tales to come. ''It was like when I'd taken a trip to some foreign land and everyone asked me about it when I got back: my accounts would grow similar, focusing on this impression, that cool place, a certain funny anecdote, until there was just the one account, which then substituted for my memory." That's talent, folks.

Keen judgment is one of the writer's most important tools. As Bob Seger sang so famously, ''What to leave in / What to leave out" is still Benjamin Kunkel's lesson to learn.

Jay Atkinson is the author of ''Legends of Winter Hill" and a novel, ''City in Amber," due in 2007. His e-mail is

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