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Monday, 5 August 2013

JOHN BUTLER - THE TENDERLOIN. NOVEL.

The Tenderloin is the name of this novel, but it is also a seedy area of the city of San Francisco where the protagonist and narrator lives. The city itself is a character in the book, its hills, parks, trams and landmarks, as well as the resonant titles of some of the locations there - Nob Hill, Alcatraz, Haight, Fisherman's Wharf - are all an intrinsic part of the tale.

The central character, Evan, is a twenty-one year old Irishman who goes to San Francisco in 1995, just when it is on the cusp of the Internet revolution. He spends most of the first few months in penury until he gets a low level job in a technology TV station and his world opens up.

The novel is good on this, the burgeoning tech sector in California, the chancers, innovators, nerds, forward thinkers, and also the skeptics and Luddites, like Evan's friend, Milo, who don't believe that this Internet thing will ever catch on.

It is also good on the experience of being young and clueless and living in a foreign city. Evan is constantly tripping up, flailing around in his attempt to adapt to a place where potatoes are only a rare optional accompaniment to a meal and not the central part of it, where people really do sleep their way to the top, and where nerds camp overnight on the street in order to be in line to buy a new version of Windows.

Evan, as a central character, is a little annoying, however. He spends most of the novel messing up, taking his boss's car out  though he has never learned to drive, almost causing a boat he is on to crash, alienating friends, losing jobs. Towards the end he is a complete mess, alcoholic, utterly confused about his sexuality, not even very likeable.

And he never reaches any kind of resolution. He goes back home, just as confused as he was when he arrived.

The strength of The Tenderloin lies in the writing, which is zippy and funny and smart, full of pop culture references, wry observations and sharp dialogue. Girls are described as "Anistonian", in a slick reference to the Friends character. People talk in short, smart, pithy conversations, say things like "Boo ya," and "Feel me?", and the spirit of the times is constantly sketched out using markers like the OJ trial.

There are a number of weaknesses in the book though. It is frequently unclear, characters are introduced, not really described properly, and then briefly reappear again later when you have forgotten who they are. And even the title is never actually explained in the text of the book, a trip to Wikipedia is necessary to find out what relevance The Tenderloin has to the actual story. Unexplained, the title just hangs there as a needless mystery that is not very interesting when it is solved.

The biggest weakness though, is in the story and the central character. It is laid out like a coming of age story, though in fact Evan doesn't actually mature or grow at all. He doesn't seem to learn any important thing about himself in his time in San Francisco, and I found it difficult to even care about his development towards the end of the novel.


The Tenderloin is a vibrantly written, funny, smart book, that is let down a little by a weak protagonist and a narrative that doesn't really progress.