Dwight B. Wilmerding, the 28-year-old protagonist of Benjamin Kunkel's debut novel "Indecision," may deem himself a mediocre man, an obedient dog, an overzealous thinker but an ever-tepid doer. But Kunkel himself, an editor of the literary journal n 1, writing his first book, is none of these things.
Kunkel inspires chuckles and contented sighs with his absurd, youthful, occasionally poetic descriptions. His dialogues in particular are incredibly insightful and meaty, familiar yet fresh.
Despite an overdone formula -- a coming-of-age yarn -- Kunkel brings enough novelty to the material to emerge as an alpha author rather than a mindless mutt obeying the expectations of the genre.
He obviously has a lot on his mind that he expresses through Dwight, who addresses those big questions about meaning and purpose, happiness and responsibility.
Dwight has a problem. Actually, he has several problems. He's overeducated but unambitious. He's stuck in a dead-end job at a drug company. He can't commit to his girlfriend Vaneetha. He simply won't grow up. All this just scratches the surface.
Yet Dwight claims his woes primarily stem from one thing -- he suffers from "abulia," the impairment or inability to make decisions. So he tests a yet-to-be released drug called Abulinix, seemingly a magic cure for all of his ailments. Soon enough, influenced by the drug or at least the very taking of the drug, Dwight abandons his job and Vaneetha, and sets off from New York City to Quito, Ecuador, in pursuit of a Dutch prep school classmate, Natasha, on whom he's had a crush for years.
Soon after he arrives, though, Natasha flies the coop, stranding Dwight in a foreign land with her Belgian/Argentine friend Brigid, herself marooned in Ecuador after abandoning her thesis for something she hasn't decided on yet. They philosophize and bicker. They explore the jungles and trip on intense drugs. Their sexual tension comes to a boil. And when Dwight returns home, he more or less finds the answers to those big questions, or at the very least doesn't let their ominous presence paralyze him any longer.
Based on Dwight's crippling anxieties, the sudden reversal of fortune seems too convenient to be believed, while a sudden plot revelation and the character's politically motivated call for action seem far-fetched and preachy, respectively.
But then Kunkel shreds the neatly wrapped package by questioning the incredible clarity and potential preposterousness of the character's revelations, and then suddenly, bitingly, ends his book on a note of indecision.
It just goes to show that the big questions can never concretely be answered and that big decisions rarely lead to pat conclusions. But their exploration is nevertheless an important part of life, especially when seen through the eyes of a good book's compelling hero.
By Benjamin Kunkel
256 pages, $21.95