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When I'm Sixties-Sore 

Noted short story writer's first novel falls flat

No era in American history is subject to as much romanticized hindsight as the 1960s. Look no further than the average American shopping mall, where teenagers who weren't even born in the decade's afterglow sport tie-dyed t-shirts, Gap stores push bell-bottom jeans, and the Grateful Dead sell more records now than they did in the 60s. But for those who were there, the 60s cast a long shadow. Days of be-ins, sit-ins, free love, drop-outs and dropping acid marked the participants forever, and not always in a feel-good fashion. Cooper Henry, the main protagonist in The Smallest Color, Bill Roorbach's first novel, has a legacy from that era so traumatic even his issues have baggage.

Cooper's struggle is with the emotional and psychological inheritance left him by his older, presumed missing, radical brother, Hodge. It's through Cooper's first-person narration -- an open letter to Hodge -- that the story unfolds in alternating chapters between the present and that fateful summer of '69.

But Cooper is unintentionally unappealing at any age, and Roorbach's depiction of his emotional baggage from the past is fatally flawed because of it. The adult Cooper is a snobbish, materialistic milquetoast neck-deep in mid-life crisis. One moment he's exalting the hippie legacy, the next he's calling an innocent retail clerk an "imperious piece of shit," then running him over with his Mercedes.

The young Cooper, who runs away at age 15 to find his outlaw brother, alternates between childish bouts of rudeness that pass for "radical" behavior and a paralyzing sycophantism far beyond the average teenager's need to fit in. Behavior like that guarantees that the elder Cooper's breakdown, cuckoldry and affair will garner little sympathy from the reader, and they don't.

The elder Cooper also harbors a dark secret about his older brother that has, in part, destroyed his parents' lives. But it's one of the novel's greatest flaws that the reason given for this secrecy is not convincing enough to justify what his parents suffer. Cooper comes across as a coward. But at least he has personality. The rest of the cast is a collection of lifeless cardboard cutouts who might as well be outfitted with black hats and halos. Roorbach's idea of character development is usually a grocery list of traits, rather than allowing the protagonists to develop naturally through the narrative in actions and speech.

Roorbach also substitutes his grocery lists for real description of the era, which trivializes the significant moments and life-altering experiences that may have occurred. The female character Bailey exposes the young Cooper to the "peace and love" argument, ticking off a checklist of "wondrous" beliefs such as:

"College was useless, God was various, bathtubs were the best place to fuck or masturbate, sex should be free, jealousy was all about ownership and both those things were wrong, football was stupid," etc., etc.

When Cooper and his older brother are eventually reunited in 1969, Hodge's radical beliefs are boiled down to one meaningless mantra -- "Kill the Pigs" -- that Roorbach uses over and over to show his contempt for those who, in his vision, went too far in the 60s and scarred its memory. This is insulting to those who fought to end the Vietnam War or segregation, although perhaps not to those whose idea of activism meant doing bong hits and getting laid.

Stylistically, Roorbach's writing sins are egregious, all the more so because two of his previous four works are books on writing. Style is a matter of taste, of course, but not when it fails to advance the narrative, or even impedes it. Roorbach suffers from a preposition phobia and comma addiction that leaves him seemingly incapable of using the word "and," which makes for frustrating, stop-and-go sentences. In some instances it even confuses the meaning as, say, this one does:

"At length I get the right words, say, 'Here's to retirement.'"

Among Roorbach's other cardinal sins are run-on sentences (one behemoth weighs in at 130 words) and adjective abuse (leaves "clatter," a house is "nervous," a woman is "cheerful/vicious").

In other instances, it's hard to imagine what Roorbach's narrative is meant to say. For instance, when Cooper praises his new girlfriend for "accepting the waitress as her equal, as a complete person," is the reader more likely to be a) impressed with her humanitarianism or b) disgusted that this is even an issue?

When Cooper mourns his best friend by sanding and painting his own home, what is the reader to think of the narrator's largesse? When Roorbach writes that a house "is quiet as trouble itself" or a "turd on the lawn," is the reader expected to understand these similes?

But unintentional contradictions abound in The Smallest Color, none more so than in the character of Cooper, which dooms the novel and prohibits sympathy the reader might have for any hangovers incurred in the 1960s.

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