When you're a young adult living in an expensive major metropolitan area, going out to eat is both the joy and the bane of your existence. A joy, because there's a 95% chance your kitchen is tiny or your roommates are using it or there has been no time to pick up groceries in between your long commutes and multiple jobs (or all of the above). A bane, because everything is so damned expensive, no one has enough money and there's always that friend who insists on splitting the bill in half even though they ordered alcohol and a far more expensive dish than you did. James Gregor's charming and well-observed debut novel, Going Dutch, uses this particular financial awkwardness as a running metaphor for the emotional inequalities between his characters.
Richard Turner, a gay man in his late 20s, is a Ph.D. student in medieval Italian literature at Columbia University, though when the novel opens he hasn't written anything new in quite some time. This is an issue, because Richard doesn't have a job, relying instead on a privately funded fellowship that requires regular letters of progress from his adviser. If he doesn't have work to show his adviser, she can't write the letter; without a letter, Richard won't have any money; if he doesn't have money, he'll need to move back home to Maine, which is the nightmare — and reality — of so many millennials trying to make a go of it in fields that are increasingly less lucrative, such as academia, journalism and the arts.
Since this fear is pretty much a regular part of his life, however, it's not entirely top of mind for Richard. Instead, he's far more concerned with his lack of success in dating, though he's on all the apps, of course:
The challenge of presenting oneself on-screen, widely considered a prerequisite for a full life in the early twenty-first century, flustered many, including Richard. ... Enough guys did, thankfully, find him cute, but not necessarily mysterious or hot; he didn't have that distilled facial architecture that plunged people into fits of despair and longing.
In one of the book's early scenes, Richard has a fantastically mediocre date with a man named Blake. Returning from the bathroom after dinner, Richard notices Blake staring at an attractive couple outside, which pretty much encapsulates what it's like to try to date in "such a supposedly solitary city, where everyone either was a lonely neurotic who lived with a dog, or blew most of their paycheck on therapy, analysis, or rent" yet "could at times feel as if it was the exclusive domain of couples."
Richard's life is well and fully realized, from his friendship with his longtime unrequited crush, Patrick, to his constant FOMO in the city that never sleeps, to his delightfully — depressingly? — realistic ennui regarding his academic prospects, which seem not only dire but pointless. Adrift and desperate, Richard tumbles into a friendship with an intense, wealthy and passionately intellectual fellow doctoral student named Anne who begins helping him with his writing — "helping" being a rather forgiving word for what's going on — but not without an unspoken price.
What soon develops between Richard and Anne may seem to some odd, unrealistic, impossible — Richard is gay, Anne is a woman and their personalities clash as often as not — but Gregor paints their dynamic beautifully, letting its uncomfortable complexity go unacknowledged for long stretches. Some relationships are like this, after all — mysteriously symbiotic or maybe parasitic, yet comforting in a way that is impossible to explain to anyone who isn't experiencing it. Of course, this not-quite-romance gets increasingly in Richard's way, and he begins to rigidly compartmentalize his life into distinct units and worlds. A mounting sense of dread propels the reader forward toward the inevitable confrontations which are, again, more realistic than you'd think: Anyone who's lived in New York knows that you will certainly run into people you wish you wouldn't at the worst possible time.
While the plot and the characters and the relationships in the novel are deeply engaging, what stuck out to me even more was Gregor's writing itself. Take this description of Anne, for example:
Anne's energy was jarring but invigorating, an inconclusive mix of maturity and immaturity. She was like a child let loose in the restraint and focus of an adult. But she was also like a mother who hands you a heavy towel and squeezes you after you've wrapped it around your shoulders, telling you to dry your hair because you lose heat through your head.
While Gregor's sentences are briefer, this description — and many others — read like a modern, snappy version of Henry James, the prose somehow very British though the authors aren't (James was American, Gregor is Canadian) and the observations of human nature precisely rendered and occasionally self-aware and mocking in tone. This mix of old-fashioned style and contemporary setting makes Going Dutch an incredibly fun read, even in its most tragic moments, when Richard is at his most infuriatingly resistant to change. I can't wait to see what Gregor writes next.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli American fiction writer, critic and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel, All My Mother's Lovers, is forthcoming from Dutton in 2020.