In the Rooms: A Novel by Tom Shone (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99, 342 pages)
She probably only dated snowboarders with a rap sheet as long as their arm, the cheekbones of Viggo Mortensen, and a penchant for whittling driftwood into small but meaningful tokens of their appreciation for Life’s Bounteous Gifts. I failed on both fronts. I had neither misbehaved with sufficient abandon nor reformed myself with enough zeal. I was just trying to get home without being tripped up, or found out, just like everyone else.
This debut novel might have been entitled Dim Lights, Big City as it is a reverse image of Jay McInerney’s book and film Bright Lights, Big City. In McInerney’s story, a young man turns to drinking and drugs to evade the memories of his dead mother and an estranged wife. In Tom Shone’s novel, protagonist Patrick Miller turns to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings as a way of shoring up his sagging career as a Manhattan-based literary agent.
Miller, who grew up in England (like his creator), has been shaken up by relationship problems – his girlfriend is bitterly honest about his flaws – and this has affected his ability to attract successful writers to the firm he works for. And then, suddenly, he finds that his favorite author in the world – one-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Douglas Kelsey – is back in the Big Apple after spending years hiding out in the artists’ community of Woodstock. Miller impulsively follows Kelsey when he spots him one day out on the streets of the city, and learns that the trail ends at an AA meeting in a church.
How is Miller going to get to speak to the reclusive Kelsey, a modern-day J.D. Salinger? Well, simple, he will just pretend that he has a drinking problem and begin joining the meetings “in the rooms” of NYC. But, actually, it’s not so simple because as he carries out his plan, Miller finds that he’s now lying all of the time to the two sets of people in his life – to his co-workers, he insists that he’s not a heavy drinker and does not have a problem (they think he’s in denial); to his new fellow AA members, he insists that he can’t handle his liquor or his women (oh, so he’s co-addicted to sex, just as they suspected).
If things aren’t complicated enough, Miller is soon attracted to Lola, a young woman he meets at one of these meetings – a woman who serves as a trusted liaison between him and the respected author – and they begin to get physical. But, Catch-22, the rules of AA prohibit them from getting close to each other for a minimum of a year – a year based on mutual sobriety. Eventually, Miller is not quite sure what he wants and just as he’s becoming addicted to Lola, his ex-flame comes back into his life.
If all of this sounds a bit glum, it’s not as told by Shone. The novel is quite funny, as my wife can testify since I read no less than 8 or 9 lengthy excerpts of it to her… Readers will identify with Miller as he’s a want-to-be nice guy who makes mistake after mistake, even after he’s decided mentally that he’s going to get his act together. It seems that he just can’t win, as life keeps throwing unexpected changes his way.
Shone makes the telling especially interesting with many insights into both the book publishing world and AA. While his characters are sometimes critical of the 12-step process, they’re also positive that the program works. Here’s the ever-cynical Kelsey on Bill (Wilson) of the Big Book: “Well, Bill’s no Steinbeck. That’s for sure. There’s nothing original to any of it. He filched the whole thing. It’s just religion’s greatest hits.”
The more that Patrick Miller learns about AA, the more he wonders if he may indeed have some problems. Whether he drinks too much or not, virtually every AA member that he encounters tells him that he spends too much time inside of his head. Miller is so busy analyzing life, and trying to find the right path and rules to follow, that it seems to be passing him by.
The true charm of In the Rooms, is its conclusion, in which our hero must make the right choices – the exact right choices – to prove to himself and others that he is, in truth, the nice guy that he’s always wanted to be. He’s helped along in this by what he’s come to learn “in the rooms” and so he comes to see that – ah, yes – it works!
A review copy was received from the publisher. “Sharp, funny, and ultimately touching… Recommended for readers of Nick Hornby and Joshua Ferris.” Library Journal