One of the rarer pleasures that comes with reviewing works of fiction is happily losing one’s place, falling inadvertently into reading for personal pleasure and not as a proxy for potential readers. That’s what happened to me as I got into Caleb Crain’s debut novel, Necessary Errors—a bildungsroman, very well put together, polished, dry but tender, ferociously observed.
The author is a scholar and a prolific essayist and reviewer. His book American Sympathy (2001), a study of male friendship and authorship in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, is frequently taught in American Studies courses. Intense research distinguishes Crain’s journalism. He has a blog called Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, which has won awards and has many readers. A younger version of the hero of Necessary Errors appears in the novella “Sweet Grafton,” published in the December 2007 issue of n+1.
Necessary Errors is the straightforward coming-of-age story of Jacob Putnam. He is a gay man, a recent graduate of Harvard, an English major with aspirations to write, who is teaching English as a second language on contract in Prague just after the triumph of the Velvet Revolution. Jacob’s situation represents a slight twist of the Stendhalian model of the young man from the provinces making his way in the metropolis: Prague is provincial (though exotic in its own way) compared to Cambridge. Jacob is part of a group of young expatriates (Brits, Scots, Irish, other Americans) similarly employed, transitionally bohemian. He is in the foreground of a group portrait of new friends that develops richly over the course of a year.
We know Jacob’s full name, but it’s first names only for the other members of the circle of friends. Evenings with the group
were a holiday from his [Jacob’s] project of understanding the Czechs and of eavesdropping on the after echoes of their revolution, and some nights he seemed to forget about his project altogether for a while….
He would probably have forgotten about his project for good if it weren’t for the problem of love. All the Scots were beautiful, especially Thom,…but Jacob was through with the mistake of falling for straight men…. He wasn’t alone in not knowing what to do about love. With the exception of Mel and Rafe, almost no one in the circle had a lover, not for long anyway. It sometimes felt as if, in compensation, they were all falling in love with one another, as a group.
What gives Crain’s novel its appeal and force as a work of art? The question is worth asking, because certain qualities of Necessary Errors stand counter to fashions prevailing in successful contemporary literary fiction. Crain uses the semicolon. The tale-telling is unusually leisurely. The scenes and exchanges of dialogue can run long. Even though the quest for love and sex is at the heart of things, the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.