LAst Resort, the debut novel by Avi Deitsch, is a work of near genius. The story of a man’s holiday romance with a woman who turns out to have weeks to live, it inspired a bidding war among New York publishers, was sold for almost seven figures, and is poised to become the next highbrow American bestseller.
Meanwhile Last Resort, the debut novel by Andrew Lipstein, is a more modest book. Funny, stylish and accomplished, it is a satirical caper about the tangled roots of creative inspiration and the indignities of authorial ambition. There is a time-honored – some would say moth-eaten – tradition of novelists writing novels about novelists, from Roth and Updike to Rooney, Ferrante and Jean Hanff Korelitz. Are such books interrogations of the moral and material conditions of authorship, or exercises in literary navel gazing? And who on earth wants to read another one?
For much of this novel, I was surprised to find myself thinking: I do. The protagonist, 27-year-old Caleb Horowitz, is part of a hipster Brooklyn milieu where people “dress like artists on weekends but spend their weekdays on Slack.” He works at a startup called Parachute that is, according to his boss, “building something”, but “What we were building was, I was beginning to understand, hard to understand.” When a breakup leaves Caleb on the verge of a breakdown, he finds himself wanting to ride the ejector seat from his own life.
It’s at this point that he encounters Avi, an old college friend who, like him, has literary aspirations. Avi shares a story he’s working on based on a recent trip to Greece, and Caleb, seeing its potential, rewrites it, keeping the subject but altering “point of view, tone, texture, velocity”. Soon he has a novel, Last Resort, for which he is offered a sensational publishing contract. But before he has signed it, Avi confronts him about the “theft” of his story and offers him a deal: Caleb can keep the money, but Avi will be acknowledged as the book’s author, with his name and photo on the jacket. Caleb accepts, but has second thoughts as his friend from him harvests the acclaim he feels he’s due, forcing him to confront the question: what matters more, money or literary celebrity?
Lipstein sets up this dilemma, and traces the fallout from it, with a formal and stylistic swagger that more experienced novelists might envy. But at a certain point the question I found myself confronting was: who cares? Both money and acclaim undoubtedly have their upsides, but in themselves neither can give life or a novel meaning. Lipstein knows this: Last Resort is an unsparing satire of a generation of millennials who fear that their lives lack gravitas and emotional depth. Every gesture is infected with painful self-awareness, a first approximation of feeling: “She rolled her eyes, or did something else I can’t describe but that’s what she meant: I’m rolling my eyes.” When Caleb does achieve a floating moment of real connection with another person, he struggles for words: “I had the urge to tell her that last night was great, that it made me feel whatever the opposite of empty was.”
Last Resort stakes everything on the hope that being knowing enough about knowingness, and ironic enough about irony, can help a novel transcend its own self-consciousness and point to something more profound. You won’t read a more brilliantly executed literary romp this year. But at a certain point you may find yourself longing for something a bit more… well, you know, whatever the opposite of empty is.