So much of American fiction has evolved alongside the motion and sensibility of our nation: it is fast, materialistic, expansive, alternatively intelligent and philistine, and yes, funny. Dan Hoffman’s characters are all these things. In this sense, his ethos proves distinctly and quintessentially American.
Hoffman’s work reminds us of writers such as Bellow and early Roth. He presents us with stories of perpetual catching up – of our tireless efforts to navigate the speed and almost-emptiness that characterizes contemporary urban life. Hoffman’s characters are people you might know: liberal arts degrees in hand and no idea how to turn the knowledge from their books into any kind of humane wisdom. The young people who populate parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn and struggle to pay attention to a conversation because they’re constantly checking their iPhones or constantly high or drunk – the kind of people who are struggling against the tide of meaningless in which, wittingly or not, they drift.
The first piece in this showcase, “The Rebound,” tells the story of a jaded young man named James who, in the aftermath of a bitter breakup, immerses himself in a series of frivolous sexual conquests. With the aid of the Internet, James attempts to disavow his past romanticism in the arms of the many young (and often neurotic) women that he meets. In the end, he finds himself in a condition of stasis, lusterless to the point of surrender.
The next story, “A Wild night at Linda’s,” tells of Bradford, a graduate student incapable of inquiring into his ethical or emotional self. Like James, Bradford stands on the outside of his story; he can do no more than guess at his inner, spiritual needs. For both Bradford and James, this emotional sterility is a silent disease. It slowly eats them until we arrive at the ultimate subjects of Hoffman’s fiction – the slow erasure of self and the tracing of where that self once was.
The final story in this showcase, “A Lesson from Ron,” presents us with a different take on the city and its propensity to corrode. In this story, the narrator, “trying to get out of the city for a weekend,” hitches a ride with his enigmatic employer, Ron. As the two ride upstate, Ron shares his stories and wisdom concerning erotic failure. While the stories end in aporia, it is clear that the narrator finds Ron’s life compelling, almost magnetizing, as if Ron’s failures in love foreshadow the narrator’s own.
Hoffman, like Roth, seems to move through the materialistic, de-eroticized-erotic landscape of American life slightly puzzled, but sure that something isn’t quite right. These stories are the sum of that puzzlement, an attempt to work out – if only implicitly – that indiscernible facet of contemporary life that isn’t quite right. It will be interesting to see, if Hoffman, like Roth, will eventually get angry as he struggles to figure it out.