There aren’t many books that display the quirks, temperament and history of all the central characters in its first two sentences: “The day my sister, Gillian, decided to pronounce her name with a hard G was, coincidentally, the same day my mother returned, early and alone, from her honeymoon. Neither of these things surprised me.”
Then again, from the lengthy title—SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU—to the spare cover and equally spare prose, this book is anything but ordinary. Ditto for James Sveck, an eighteen year old protagonist who refuses to report for his freshman year at Brown University.
Not defer, simply not go.
Instead, he plans to head out to Kansas, purchase a house on the cheap and live a quiet life. (The more I think about it, as I stare at my rent check made out to a Manhattan landlord, James may be on to something. Mental note: pack bags overnight, buy ten dozen bagels, tell wife we’re going on a road trip, tell school that I won the national Teacher-of-the-Year award and that President Obama wants to honor me at a state dinner in Kansas—a very long state dinner, with many courses—and maybe he’ll invite me to the White House to shoot hoops and tell him all about Bronx high schools and he’ll be so impressed that he’ll appoint me czar of education, czar of baseball, czar of book writing, czar of . . .)
We all have fantasies; some of them are clean, and some are twisted and dangerous—and funny. Exhibit A: James explains that one of the plaques outside his dad Upper East Side apartment reads, “IN MEMORY OF HOWARD MORRIS SHULEVITZ, BLOCK PRESIDENT 1980-1993. HE LOVED THIS BLOCK. I thought about throwing myself out our living room window so that I would land the sidewalk in front of the tree well. I would get my own plaque then, beside Howard’s: JAMES DUNFOUR SVECK, SECOND BLOCK PRESIDENT, 1985-1997. HE LOVED THIS BLOCK TOO.”
Though everyone around James isn’t exactly centered, James is the furthest out there, teetering on the border between quirky and ill. His shrink tries to bring him back from the periphery, but James is a worthy competitor, matching her every question with one of his own: Why doesn’t she keep any novels in her office? Why does she keep saying “I see?” Why does everyone think he’s having a breakdown? What is his sexuality? Why does ordering pasta instead of steak makes him unmanly? Why is it such a big deal to post fake profiles on male dating sites and then go meet up with them, people he knows from work, and in so many words yell, Surprise, colleague, it’s me, James—you know, from the art gallery!
Yes, James will make you squirm. But you won’t be able to look away. He’s a superbly drawn character in a brilliantly conceived book. You’ll pity him, admire him, and want to befriend him. You simply won’t be able to take your eyes off James Svek, which is a good thing because you’ll be seeing a whole lot of him. The movie is due out this year.