By Dylan Hicks
Coffee House Press, May 2016
288 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Nick Sweeney
We strive to better ourselves, our situations, all for the sake of reaching our goals. We often forget the costs of doing so, but continue to rush in time and time again. Amateurs, by Dylan Hicks, is a reminder of the costs and the rewards of bettering ourselves. It is a novel dead set on making you love something in a way that only a novel can and ripping the imagination and energy out of the fiction and replacing it with the not so subtle reality we wake up to on a day to day basis.
Our cast of characters is a mishmash of early men and women in their early thirties. They are roaming the dark room known as life with nothing but a flashlight with a battery on the fritz. Archer is the epicenter of incoming and outgoing characters; he is the center of the novel, of both the past and present storylines. He is related to Karyn who must drive Lucas to Winnipeg for Archer and Gemma’s wedding, in the present. Gemma is dating Lucas, who knows John, who dates Sara, who helps Archer as a literary assistant of sorts. Dylan Hicks is at his best when the stakes are raised and chaos rules supreme. He is the only calm one present, he organizes his characters in such a way that disorients the reader at first but allows for a rather spectacular conclusion when the pieces finally settle in their intended spots. Imagine a dark room with no light and no sound and bumping into six people at the same exact time. This is when Amateurs is at its most visceral.
There’s this reoccurring theme of finding the world around you anew, even if it’s a world already travelled. These are men and women in their thirties, people who have done their share of reaching for dreams. They are not starry eyed children unleashed into the world. They are veterans of the daily ups and downs of reality. In one passage, Sara reminds herself of this:
He was such an attractive mesh of arrogance and awkwardness. It was hard for her to remember how she’d once found him ugly. As a kid she’d always hated the Buffalo City Court Building, a symphonically dystopic concrete tower, not windowless but with a vast windowless expanses and, around its edges, wedge-topped slits that brought guillotines to one’s mind, or to one’s head. Then in college a friend told her the building was a distinguished example of brutalism, and instantly she recognized its overcast beauty, became one of its staunch defenders.
Young people often rush into things. It’s not that they make bad decisions; they make different choices and reflect on the unintended consequences and results afterwards. The entire novel is based on the premise of knowing what you want and the products of you getting there. Archer wants to be a Writer, to live the life-style. Sara wants to get paid, to finally live up to her potential as an actual writer. John wants a sense of authenticity to his life. Lucas wants Gemma and Gemma wants…the best world she can have. Karyn isn’t particularly hungry for any one thing, but she finds a piece of something she realizes she wanted all along. Of course, not all endings are happy endings. Getting what you want doesn’t necessarily mean you get happiness. Hicks can time a plot fuse perfectly, delaying it for a grand explosion at a book reading in New York City.
This isn’t a book about writers, or traveling, or the sex-toy industry. This is a book about the hacking through the maze of reality with a dull knife. This is about making decisions that can make a significant impact on those around you. This is a novel about knowing when to be an observer and when to be brave and speak up. It’s about the truth in between the lies we tell ourselves every day just to get through. This is a novel that frustrates the reader in the best way, a novel that hooks you on characters you’d hate (or love) and rips that emotion out from you as you settle in. Dylan Hicks’s Amateurs reminds us that we are all amateurs to the game of life—we all just play the best we can.