Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Review: Character and Fitness

Character and Fitness
By Jason Flores-Williams

(Review by Brian Polk)

Jason Flores-Williams has never been known for subtlety. In 2002, he clamorously announced his presence in the literary world with his third novel, The Last Stand of Mr. America — a relentless, graphic assault on the greed and crippling sexual mores of a society drowning in its own excess. Since then, Flores-Williams has focused his energy on authoring articles for The Nation, High Times, and The Brooklyn Rail, organizing protests against the Iraq war and President Bush, and more recently, graduating law school and becoming a public defender in post-Katrina New Orleans. So for the better part of the last decade, the professional provocateur has remained quiet on the literature front…

That is, until now.

Flores-Williams’ fourth novel, Character and Fitness, is, for all intents and purposes, what you might expect from a man who has dedicated much of his adult life to opposing injustice. But unlike Last Stand, it abandons the unforgiving, holding-the-mirror-up-to-society approach, centering instead on the stagnant life of Neal de la Vega, a semi-autobiographical depiction of Flores-Williams who struggles to integrate the idealism of his youth into the complexities of his adult life. Sure, a healthy distaste for inequality may be romantic — hell, even sexy — for a roustabout in his young 20s, but what does it mean for a man in his late 30s? And what do years of punk, resistance, and integrity add up to in the end? According to Neal the answer is simple: a shitty apartment in New Jersey, unemployment, and ever-dwindling career prospects. As a former-public defender, Neal paid his dues as a political activist: running from Santa Fe to Albuquerque to protest the Tiananmen Square massacre, organizing actions against the Carlyle Group in midtown Manhattan, and giving up his comfortable life in New York to stand up for his fellow man after Katrina decimated New Orleans. But now he’s broke and losing hope, living off his girlfriend in a bland apartment situated next to the massive cement parking lot of a Starbucks and Target.

Sick of spending his time in a closet that he converted into an office, where he receives rejection notices for every resume he sends out, Neal considers temp work, but quickly reconsiders when the temp agency can only offer him a job at Schmidt and Sandler — a law firm that recently slashed its employee pensions so management could walk away with millions. After bickering with Rachel — a common occurrence brought on by the burden of Neal’s unemployment — he finally gets some good news: he’s invited to an interview at the Civil Rights Guild in Washington D.C. where he would be given the opportunity to defend everything he holds dear: equal protection and the first and fourteenth amendments. But after a shaky interview, he receives yet another rejection notice, which inspires him to do what dejected people often do: get as drunk as possible. And that’s where fate steps in.

Before he went to D.C. for the ill-fated interview, he ran into his friend from law school, Chris Majerus, who invited him to a rooftop party full of affluent attorneys from New York City. It’s at this party where, between whiskey shots and lines of cocaine, Majerus promises to arrange an interview for Neal at Goldstein and Locke, a prestigious law firm in Manhattan that defends the rights of corporations to pollute the environment, unfairly exploit the workforce, and generally abuse the system. When Neal procures a job offer, he finds that despite being a corporate tool, the career doesn’t come without its allure: starting salary is 230 thousand a year — an income that would effectively end his poverty, restore his dignity, and allow him to live in a nice apartment with Rachel on Tompkins Square Park. But Rachel doesn’t want him to take the job, which — when coupled with his friend Nancy, a young activist who he and Rachel befriend that constantly reminds him of the idealism of his youth — should be enough of an incentive to turn down the job. But Neal is supposed to be the breadwinner. Why should he continue to wallow in the self-pity of his unemployment for some abstract concept of morality?

In biting prose that’s humorous and poignant, Flores-Williams explores whether or not the good fight is eternal. And while it’s obvious that the struggle takes on a different form in an activist's late thirties — especially in contrast to his twenties — the author questions the point of this self-imposed suffering when the money is there for the taking. After all, if someone like Neal doesn’t take it, someone else will. And that’s just it: the system will continue to thrive whether the idealists of the world decide to become a part of it or not. So what’s the point? Resistance is futile, right?

Right?

Character and Fitness is a masterpiece of the activist-turned-downtrodden, a note of praise to the former radical who still clings to hope and integrity in a world where hope and integrity are systematically eviscerated on a daily basis. It’s a welcome return to form for the reigning champion of protest literature. And it’s Jason Flores-Williams at his best.

-Brian Polk