'The Fuck-Up' by Arthur Nersesian
'The entire city of New York was sick and in desperate need of a vacation.'—Review #176
I hope 2022 is off to a great start for you. I know I promised to kick off the new year with a review of ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt, but I haven’t finished it yet. Apologies. Next time, I swear! Instead, I’m excited to tell you about this obscure and profanely titled gem by Arthur Nersesian.
Here’s the cover:
The invisible hand of destiny led me to this novel. Back in 2020, I read an article in The Wall Street Journal about how Nersesian, an author I hadn’t heard of, was coming out with a 1,500-plus page novel that took him 25 years to write. Lower down in the piece was a mention of this previous work, which was published in the 1990s, and it stuck in my brain because I was startled to see an F-bomb in The Journal. Months passed, and one day Donna and I were walking along Ocean Parkway and found a pile of books on the sidewalk. This book was in the pile. I picked it up and contemplated taking it, but it was dirty so I put it back. More months passed. One weekend this past November I was browsing a used book store called Freebird Books on Columbia Street by the Brooklyn waterfront. I didn’t see anything interesting in the stacks, so I headed for the door. Torrential rain and hail fell, and the wind was blowing like crazy. I stayed in the store to wait out the storm. While browsing a second time, I found this book. When I pulled it off the shelf, it had dirt on it. I wondered, ‘Could it be the same one from Ocean Parkway?’ I knew:
The novel is set during the 1980s primarily in the East Village, and it follows an unnamed twenty-something protagonist who, as the title suggests, can’t get out of his own way in contending with life’s challenges. His downward spiral is wild, and has moments that are heartbreaking and hilarious. Fired from his job at a movie theater on St. Mark’s Place and dumped by his girlfriend, he is forced to rely on hustles and scams to keep a roof over his head and cash in his pocket. He pretends to be gay to con his way into a job at a gay-porn theater on Second Avenue and East 12th Street (the Village East of an alternate reality?), where he skims the till for extra money. He briefly couch-surfs at the apartment of his only friend, an oddball intellectual named Helmsley, and gets into a fistfight with Helmsley’s deranged girlfriend. He goes to a deli only to discover it’s in the process of being robbed. In an ensuing altercation, he is injured after crashing through the meat counter. He shares an ambulance to St. Vincent’s Hospital with a yuppie woman who’s gentrifying Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens; their nascent romantic relationship ends with her asking him to discipline her teenage son. He house sits at the loft of a Russian film director traveling abroad, only to get tossed out after a cocaine bender with the director’s girlfriend. Clearly, with this guy:
The other major character in this book is New York City. Nersesian beautifully evokes a city on the cusp of gentrification, where knock-off goods are sold on Astor Place, where the subway is still sometimes referred to as the IRT, where there are still SROs and empty lots where glassy towers now stand, and where apartment flipping is something new and shocking. I love how Nersesian name-checks East Village dives like the Blue & Gold (where Donna and I had a nightcap on our first date) and the Holiday Lounge, and how he accurately lists the stops on the F train. (But can someone help me understand his F train logistics in the excerpt below?) I love that the protagonist’s yuppie love interest lives steps away from where Freebird Books is. There’s a moment where a dead person’s books are put out on the curb, leaving the protagonist and me to ponder what happens to our books when we die? (I’ll be thinking about this for a long time.) Sure, there is a lot of nostalgia within these pages, but the story is about as New York as Billy Crystal in a diner reading the New York Post while wearing a Yankees cap:
There’s a note on an inside page of the book indicating that selling it without it’s cover is ‘unauthorized,’ and that any book without its cover should be considered ‘stripped.’ I’ve never seen anything like that before. Were booksellers really ripping off covers of Nersesian’s book back in the 1990s to avoid offending customers? I know the title might turn off some readers, but if you can see past that, you’ll find an absolute gem of a book. It’s a riveting story, and I flew through it. I laughed, I nearly cried, and I missed being out and about in New York. ‘The Fuck-Up’ belongs on everyone’s top-10 New York books list. If you love New York, warts and all, or if you’re just looking for a good story, you should read this book.
How it begins:
Perhaps the price of comfort is that life passes more rapidly. But for anyone who has lived in uneasiness, even for a short, memorable duration, it’s a trade-off that will gladly be made. When I was in my teens, I made an appraisal of how comfortable my life could turn out when I became the age I am now. Because of a mechanical failure, the prediction was inexact. Things reversed. I ended up living somewhere I once avoided, with a woman whom I genuinely once disliked.
Recently we celebrated our seventh anniversary together with a decent dinner and a not dreadful film. I got out of work early that evening and took the F train to Forty-second Street. I crossed Fifth Avenue toward the Main Branch of the Public Library, but paused in the middle of the crosswalk. It was filling up with the evening rush hour crowd: men in trench coats, secretaries in tennis shoes, cabs in the crosswalk, cars honking, leviathan buses zooming inches, braking, zooming again, and bike messengers slicing through it all. The last time I was in that spot, seven years ago, there wasn’t a person in sight.
Seven years ago that day, as dawn rose, I remember standing in roughly the same spot watching as the traffic signals hanging over each intersection slowly turned yellow then red. Cars zoomed forward, headlights still on, staying ahead of the changing lights; at dusk they could make it all the way down without a single red light.
At rush hour, the entire avenue was gridlocked. But I could still faintly make out the small white crown of the Washington Square Arch at the very end. The anniversary of my relationship coincided with that dawning, and although that morning marked something that eluded celebration, it couldn’t be forgotten either.
Something honked at me, so I crossed the street, reboarded the packed F train and returned to Brooklyn for the anniversary dinner.
‘The Fuck-Up’ by Arthur Nersesian was published by Akashic Books in 1991 and by MTV Books/Pocket Books in 1999. 296 pages. $16.99 at Bookshop.org.
What book has fate selected for you?
Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #175
Read this: There were many, many tributes to the late Joan Didion over the past week, but the one that stuck with me is by Zadie Smith in The New Yorker. Not only does it do an excellent job of assessing and explaining the importance of Didion’s work, but I loved Smith’s anecdote about bumming a cigarette off Didion and not realizing who she was. I have enjoyed many of Didion’s books, but have reviewed only one for BoG: ‘South and West.’
Read this, too: Ben McFall, a legendary bookseller at Strand Book Store, died recently. The New York Times has a touching obituary showing how McFall, who oversaw the fiction stacks, was ‘the heart of the Strand.’ I loved this detail about how he priced used books: ‘On occasion, he’d assess a book newly purchased by the store and find inside his own handwriting with a price from the 1980s.’
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,
Happy New Year. Great review and I’ll have to find a clean copy. The comment on the inside about tearing off the cover was in many paperbacks. When booksellers did returns to publishers for unsold books, they only had to return the covers of paperbacks. The rest of the book was supposed to go in the trash. If you bought a book without the cover, it was “stripped” and the publisher and by extension, the author were not paid for it.
I really hope it was the same copy stalking you. Happy New Year!