Book review: ‘The Men Can’t Be Saved,’ by Ben Purkert


Seth Taranoff, the young Jewish narrator of Ben Purkert’s witty debut novel, “The Men Can’t Be Saved,” is what in Yiddish is called a schlemiel — a congenital bungler, a screw-up, a klutz. It’s not that he’s constantly breaking things, though a borrowed Range Rover does get pretty roughed up under his watch. He’s a bumbler because he’s so determined to make things simple and frictionless for himself that he’soblivious to reality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he works in advertising.

Seth’s dubious claim to fame is writing an award-winning tagline for a brand of adult diapers (“Everyday briefs for the everyday hero”), an accomplishment he’s struggled to duplicate. As he strives for the kind of validation only a pitch-perfect tagline can deliver, he drifts. He hooks up with a colleague, Josie, in the boss’s office; goes on a Birthright trip to Israel at his mother’s urging; he heads to Tulsa to pitch slogans to a prostate-cancer nonprofit. “Prostate, I believed, could go big,” he muses, skeptically.

Anybody this aimless and callow is destined for a comeuppance, of course. But Seth can avoid the inevitable for a time because he has more pressing crises. He is laid off by the New York ad firm, then lands a job as a barista in an ill-paying, high-end coffee joint. He loses Josie — and worse, she’s now dating a former colleague nicknamed Moon. He’s handsome, accomplished and boorish, a guy who “had a habit of attracting dense flocks of interns, like a garbage barge blanketed in seagulls.” Moving on, Seth falls for a fellow barista named Ramya, a talented but troubled artist. But does he actually like her, or does he just like playing her savior — or the stash of mood-adjusting pills she shares with him?

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The plot that ensues goes a lot of places, involving a road trip to rescue Ramya, with side visits to an Orthodox Jewish household, a rehab center, a casino and more. Purkert — a poet and former ad copywriter — is working in a familiar tradition. His forebears are the likes of Teddy Wayne, Joshua Ferris, Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart, all of whom have written brash and funny satires of family, workplaces and masculinity gone off the rails. That crowd of Gen X writers were in turn inspired by the schlemiel-like heroes of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Seth isn’t as manically sex-obsessed as Portnoy, but he’s living in Portnoy’s shadow all the same.

Purkert’s tweak to the man-child-in-crisis comic novel, as the title suggests, is that he’s ultimately less willing to forgive his hero’s blundering, and more skeptical about how much men like him can be rehabilitated. Seth’s nature is to rescue people who didn’t ask for his valiant efforts: “I wanted to nurture that talent and protect her from the world and its vast fleet of vile men,” he thinks of Ramya. But Seth has a certain vileness he won’t consider, and in time the narrative thickens with Seth’s self-delusions, rationalizations and outright falsehoods. He writes some variation of “I lied” practically as often as he writes “I said.”

Why invest reading time in a guy like this? For the same reason you might for Roth or Shteyngart: Purkert can be a sharply funny observer of male foibles, 20-something angst and the modern workplace. Moon’s sexism is deliberately cringeworthy. A female Israeli soldier in Tel Aviv rolls her eyes at his entire being: “You Americans. You’re always crying or puking or both.” A bachelor party becomes a crisis of morals, faith and identity: “Visiting a strip club was like visiting Israel, I figured. Both were morally questionable places. Both would expose who I was or might become.”

But the sharpest comments — both funny and serious — involve the advertising business. Seth is seduced by the praise that comes with a well-turned tagline. But slogans are inherently reductionist and usually false. (“All brands are lies,” Josie tells him, to his resentment.)The consequence of Seth’s love for simplification is a refusal to take much of anything else seriously. Pressed into a sober conversation about Judaism, he punts: “I made up something about how faith is difficult, how it asks a lot of us. It seemed true enough.”

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The novel waffles somewhat in figuring out how funny it wants to be. Discussions of chronic illness and low-wage work run side-by-side with comic riffs on HR jargon and romantic jealousy. Some jokes don’t land; some storytelling detours (such as one about a childhood friend’s suicide) aren’t just distracting but deflating. But Roth and Bellow rambled too, understanding that young, callow men tend to bump into a lot of walls in the maze of early adulthood. There’s plenty of evidence in “The Men Can’t Be Saved” that Purkert can write a novel that’s capable of bumbling in that esteemed company.

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and the author of “The New Midwest.”

Overlook Press. 304 pp. $26

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