Twentysomething

The Quarter-Life Crisis
of Jack Lancaster

By Iain Hollingshead

Overlook Duckworth. 224 pp. $13.95

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Reviewed by Jen A. Miller


Jack Lancaster is not an impressive man. Sure, he has a well-paying job, but he hates it. He's overweight, balding and obsessed with the "perfect woman," who is light-years out of his league and instantly slots him into the "friend" category. The bulk of his day is spent hating his job, and his nights are dedicated to booze and the pursuit of (sometimes underage) women.

Twentysomething: The Quarter-Life Crisis of Jack Lancaster by Iain Hollingshead follows Lancaster for a very long year full of the grubby details of one young man's London life. Most of the book is Lancaster writing in a diary format about drinking, girls and a crappy job. He's a boy in a man's body: He still calls his parents "Mummy and Daddy" and delights in writing about his bowel movements, but makes more money than he respectably knows what to do with.

The book-as-one-long-bender certainly isn't a new genre. After all, Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones was published in 1749. But the recent spate of books like Twentysomething, Frog King by Adam Davies (Penguin, $13), and The Bachelor Chronicles by Ron Geraci (Kensington, $14) is keeping the lad-lit movement going in fresh form in the 21st century, the male equivalent of Bridget Jones's Diary for the heartbroken men of the world.

"Lad lit" can work as long as it understands what it is. Is it written to make you laugh, even if it's not mature, endearing, or even close to politically correct? Fine, then. Bring on the sixth-grade humor - Aaron Karo's Ruminations on a Twentysomething Life (Fireside, $11) is one prime example. Or is it a novel trying to make a bigger statement about a generation pressed into competition for the best schools, the best jobs and the best salaries only to find out that when they get what they want, it isn't anything like what they hoped it would be?

Unfortunately, Twentysomething tries to be both, and ends up being neither. It reads too much like an actual diary, full of the boring stuff that makes up one person's life but isn't really interesting for someone else to read. Granted, some of the stories, as when Lancaster and his friends steal a tree on the way home from a bar, or his ruminations on the silliness of the gym, are funny: "I am bored of competing subconsciously with people twice my size (almost certain to lose) or against the machines themselves (absolutely certain to lose)," he writes. "The treadmill's power supply will always last longer than mine. The step machine might not be able to carry on stepping without my help, but at least it won't be lying on the floor retching its guts out." But these stories and observations lose their humor when strung together through a weak plot, and the last chapters of seriousness tacked on at the end are hollow in comparison, too predictable and cliched to have the gravity Hollingshead tries to put into them.

This isn't to discount the lad-lit genre entirely. Kyle Smith's Love Monkey (HarperCollins, $13.95), which was a book before a TV show, takes much the same form as Twentysomething. It's even told in diary format. But Smith focuses more on the meaning behind his protagonists' actions and displays the angst a lot of young people experience in trying to carve a spot in the world. The "perfect woman" in Love Monkey is flawed all over, but still haunts the main character, which is more realistic than the perfect woman who is completely pristine, shiny, beautiful and without fault, as she is in Twentysomething.

Like a real twentysomething, Hollingshead's novel is an in-between - remembering the freewheeling days of college and trying to be a grown-up at the same time. If Hollingshead can move out of the potty humor and out of cliches, he will grow up and put his wit to better use.

Jen A. Miller writes about books for Poets and Writers, US Airways Magazine, the St. Petersburg Times, and Psychology Today.