Richard cannot bear to work on his dissertation any longer. Medieval Italian literature has lost its sway over his life. His project seems futile in what feels like the end—an end not only for the humanities in higher education, but for the whole planet, too. And yet, if he doesn’t produce pages, he will lose the fellowship that funds his basic cost of living in New York City. Richard’s ennui has bled into his dating life as well: the abundance of men offered up by various apps and websites overwhelm him. Often the encounters leave him vaguely unsatisfied by the shrewdness of it all. “Most guys in New York were fidgetingly impatient to skip preliminaries,” Richard muses, “to get wherever they wanted to go, whether it be marriage, sex, or somewhere in between.” He is blocked, in almost every sense of the word: intellectually, romantically, financially, spiritually. Such is the state of our protagonist in James Gregor’s glorious debut novel Going Dutch, a smart and sometimes sardonic tale of queer couplings in the era of Grindr, obnoxious foodie culture, and millennial boredom.
Soon after a lackluster meeting with his advisor—who suggests an array of “tricks” for him to try, including acupuncture, to overcome his writing problem—Richard encounters the two people who will, for better and for worse, force him out of his rut. First, he meets Blake in real life after connecting with him online and is immediately struck by his “genuine enthusiasm” for the date. Blake’s conservative politics (and affection for Ayn Rand) are more of a curiosity to Richard than a deal-breaker. Still, the date ends anticlimactically, and yet Blake will unexpectedly return to Richard’s life later on in the novel. But by then Richard will have already entered into a strange liaison with a fellow grad student, the immensely wealthy and intellectually gifted Anne. Richard is, initially, bewildered by her allure: “It wasn’t attraction exactly, but he felt the blurred outlines of that category.” While the relationship with Anne becomes sexual, it is not exactly romantic—at least, not from Richard’s perspective. But the coupling does prove beneficial to his academic career, so he has reason to stick around: Anne rewrites and, eventually, writes his papers for him. Her “help” wins him the admiration of his advisor and an extension of his fellowship; therefore, he is obliged, though resentful, to be at her beck and call, which is hardly a slog, considering Anne foots the bill for everything they do together, including their extravagant meals and lux retail excursions. When Blake reappears, Richard becomes the unlikely center of a charged triangle—culminating with a disastrous brunch scene for the ages. I won’t give away exactly what happens, even though that hardly matters. How it all happens—the implosion of Richard’s shenanigans at Sant Ambroeus in SoHo—is a delectable set piece that is well worth the wait. I am still, in fact, quite winded by it.
Gregor’s novel has many delights—the taunt prose, the wry depiction of gay men in a sterilized New York City, the bemused renderings of academe that ring all-too-true to someone, like myself, who has spent much of his adult life in the university—but one of the more subtle triumphs is the character of Richard himself. He is a spoiled twenty-something who cannot, bless him, adult and, therefore, resorts to manipulating others into taking care of him. I often hear folks crow about the likability of characters in novels, as if that were the threshold to enjoying a story. In truth, likability is often beside the point. So imagine my delight in reading Gregor’s imminently unlikable Richard. He lies, he cheats, he exploits, he takes advantage—and it is oh-so-delicious to read. Wharton’s Undine Spragg comes to mind, but here there are fewer bejeweled gowns and perhaps less self-awareness.
Anne and Blake are far from innocent in this arrangement, for both are, in different ways, shown to be blinded by their own privilege, all but hollowed out by the capitalistic structures they explicitly and implicitly support, but they are perhaps more sympathetic in the end, if only by comparison to Richard. The fact that James Gregor can engender from me even a little compassion for Blake, a republican lawyer who insists Atlas Shrugged is a good book, is astounding.
Going Dutch is a feast for the senses. I found myself totally enthralled by its rich language and whip-smart observations. But the characters sparking off of one another—that is what kept me furiously turning the pages, hungry for more.
By James Gregor
Simon & Schuster
Published August 20, 2019
James Gregor holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia. He has been a writer in residence at the Villa Lena Foundation in Tuscany and a bookseller at Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris. James was born and grew up in Canada. Going Dutch is his first novel.