Sam Munson's debut, The November Criminals, hinges on the distinct, adolescent voice of its narrator. In the tradition of Huck ("You don't know about me") and Holden ("If you really want to hear about it"), Munson's Addison Schacht starts with "You've asked me to explain what my best and worst qualities are." This particular you is the admissions board of the University of Chicago, and the novel's clever conceit is an extended response to a generic essay question. In a spirited mea culpa, Addison recounts the unsolved murder of one of his classmates at John F. Kennedy Senior High School in Washington, DC, and his attempt to solve the crime in a series of rowdy misadventures. The detective work yields little more than the narrator's nihilistic epiphany.
The November Criminals is set in 1999, a fact conveyed less through references to politics or music than in the buzzing of Addison's pager. Equal parts drug dealer, Latin-grammar whiz, and smart-aleck stoner, he's a motherless son, raised by an emotionally distant and unsuccessful ceramicist father. Such is the particular source of angst, whose strange display, from a Jew, is in making Holocaust jokes with his sort-of girlfriend, Digger (The Sorrow and the Pity, here, as in Annie Hall, is date-movie material). "What's brown and hides in the attic?" You might not want to know the punch line.
Race and the exposure of racism are the novel's central concerns. Addison is white, middle-class, and part of his high school's gifted-and-talented program. Kevin Broadus, the murder victim, was black and also a G&T member. Addison has a characteristically verbose take on this: "They let in six black kids or so every year to balm their consciences, and set up pantomimes like Black History Month and Diversity Outreach (which is just as horrifyingly inept as its name suggests)." Addison's drug connection, Noel, is white but throws around "the N-word" with unrepentant zeal, while Addison, on meeting Kevin's father, thinks to say (but doesn't), "You sound white." In a climactic scene, one of Addison's white classmates is awarded a prize (named after Broadus) for an essay she's written about the problems facing young black men. Ironies abound.
Addison's cutting remarks can be humorous, and his spiel, with its manifold likes, constant italicizing, and unrestrained cursing, produces a compelling character. Yet one wants more from these charged scenarios than terse observation. Addison's quips about the bitter pill of faux liberalism, for instance, suggest a more substantive direction. But the implications of Kevin's murder and of Addison's quest to solve it remain mostly unexplored. When his investigation lands him in the hospital, Addison thinks better of trying to prove anything and even of getting into college: "You can refuse me admission. You can call the cops," he says. Surrounded by meaninglessness, like so many young lovers before him, Munson's hero goes for the girl instead.