By Daniel Torday
St. Martin. 352 pp. $27.99
Reviewed by Chuck Bauerlein
In a world where homemade pipe bombs make their way into the mailboxes of American political leaders and the mail rooms of progressive news outlets, Daniel Torday's new novel, Boomer1, is topical and relevant, indeed.
Torday, director of the creative writing program at Bryn Mawr College, sets his tale in the contentious landscape of our national debate, creating a thoughtful, taut, and engaging commentary on how social media can escalate personal angst into a terrorist act that turns deadly.
With admirable dexterity and a sharp eye for detail, Torday takes readers into the collapsing life of Mark Blumfield, a thirtysomething magazine fact-checker who loses his job when ad agencies begin to abandon print media and hook their wagons to internet content providers. His next career move doesn't pan out. Mark goes into debt to pursue a doctorate in literature. Part of his dissertation is turned into a long, published essay on Emma Goldman. It should be a personal benchmark, but almost no one reads it.
Mark's final bad decision is his misguided infatuation with Cassie, a blond millennial who joins his bluegrass band and who becomes entangled in Mark's emotional life, but who finds herself attracted to women. She quickly dismisses his marriage proposal.
Discovering that he must pay taxes on $10,000 worth of Disney stock he cashed in to pay for Cassie's engagement ring, Mark vacates his Brooklyn apartment, tail tucked squarely between his legs, and finds refuge in the basement of his mother's home in the suburbs of Baltimore.
There, slowly simmering with rage and regrets, Mark turns his frustrations about his living situation into internet video "boomer missives" on YouTube under an assumed name, Isaac Abramson, a.k.a. Boomer1. He ends his jeremiads with this: "Social Insecurity. I am Boomed. We are all boomers now. Resist much, obey little. Propaganda by the deed. Boom boom." The slogan resonates with other marginalized millennials who still live at home and have come to resent their boomer parents, who hold on to their jobs long past the recommended retirement age of 66, denying younger workers their rightful places in the workforce.
Much to Mark's own surprise, he has found his voice as a writer and his missives quickly go viral. They also attract the attention of governing authorities. When the FBI pays a visit to the home of Mark's mother, Julia, he becomes aware Isaac Abramson is now officially regarded as a potential terrorist.
Torday's use of pop culture icons to tweak his tale of class angst and social retribution adds some darkly comedic notes that are certain to resonate with boomer-age readers. For example, Mark posts his videos wearing a rubber mask of David Crosby, with an upside-down poster image of Jerry Garcia hanging behind him.
"Pretty Polly," an old bluegrass standard frequently on the Grateful Dead's concert playlist, is a cultural touchstone that connects the author's three main characters, Cassie, Mark, and Julia. The last begins to lose her hearing, which is attributed to performing with a popular bluegrass band in the late 1960s and serves as an apt metaphor for her inability to "hear" Mark's frustrations.
Mark's downward spiral leads him into what radio conspiracy theorists call "the dark web." He joins a collective of millennial anarchists known as Silence. Meanwhile, Cassie's career as director of media research at an internet news service called RazorWire takes off, leading to a substantially better job offer at a similar West Coast content provider. Cassie's new wonder world of glass-enclosed midtown offices (complete with such wretched excesses as a bocce ball court for midafternoon relaxation) serves as a vivid counterpoint to Mark's depressing dungeon.
Cassie has been keeping track of Mark's meteoric rise to internet infamy. She heads down to Baltimore to visit him for old times' sake, and the story takes a turn that feels both inevitable and eerily prescient.
Boomer1's knowing take on identity politics and generational turmoil will make many people smile. The novel is artfully written and well worth reading. But the laughs it provokes may feel discomforting to readers drawing Social Security checks.