Josh Barkan’s satiric first novel, Blind Speed, concerns Paul, the rather unethical drummer for a failed rock band who is stuck between protracted adolescence and overdue adulthood. What might seem a clichéd coming-of-age story becomes, in Barkan’s hands, a bildungsroman with a twist, for Paul, thirty-five years old and foundering, hardly resembles the prototypical blossoming young man.
Paul receives a palm reading from the arrogant, persuasive leader of a New Age–style retreat named Buffalo Man, who, in putting “his ear directly against the palm” of Paul’s hand, “nearly crushing him in pain,” informs him that he will probably die before his fortieth birthday. What really rattles Paul, however, is that Buffalo Man’s predictions start to come true: Paul’s brother is killed at the Pentagon on September 11, his fiancée is shot at a Revolutionary War reenactment, and another brother manipulates him miserably in a publicity stunt to gain votes for his congressional race. With these disturbing, sometimes comic, events in motion, Paul sets out to come to terms with his frustrated dreams.
Failure is familiar turf for him. With his fantasies of rock ’n’ roll stardom washed up, he takes a job as a professor at a community college but is unable to write, publish, and thus obtain tenure. Self-destructive and overly focused on his brother’s political success, he begins a relationship with Zoe, a woman who, like Paul, has unrealistic dreams of being a performer. In the course of relating Paul’s wrong turns, Blind Speed asks an interesting question about achievement: Why are some people able to connect with and succeed in the world, while others, with similar abilities, become paralyzed, resist, or enact self-sabotage? As much as the novel engages with satire, it also obsessively ruminates on achievement anxiety. As Paul notes, he was born “with so much seemingly endless promise the day men first landed on the moon.”
Through Paul’s pained and muddled eyes, Barkan conveys the panicked discomfort that young (and middle-aged) people feel as they weigh the dull conformity of adult life against the prospect of living more provisionally. Yet it’s puzzling that Buffalo Man, the character Barkan most strongly ridicules, offers predictions that come to pass. In undercutting the book’s satire, there’s a sense that the author is unsure about how to answer his own question.
Paul’s tale is partly recounted by a lightly metafictional, unnamed narrator (who might be a future Paul) in colloquial, rather sloppy prose that suits the near-dissolute protagonist. As the narrator emerges at the ends of several chapters to point out, among other things, that this novel is a novel, it seems that Barkan is trying to backpedal on his realism. To haul metafictional workings into a book already busy with satire, inquiry, family dynamics, and over-the-top plot turns seems unnecessary. At the center of Blind Speed is an examination of the painful ambivalence that precedes and accompanies success, and that is enough to make for compelling reading. With its confident and lyric ending, the novel affirms that conventional fictional devices can work very well.