Established literary critic Caleb Crain published his masterful first novel, Necessary Errors (Penguin), this August. The novel takes place in 1990, one year after the Velvet Revolution that ended Communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia. Jacob Putnam, the novel’s protagonist, is a newly out Harvard graduate and aspiring writer, who has come to Prague to teach English and write his first novel. Jacob and his colleagues at the still state sponsored language institute attempt to navigate the trials and tribulations of young adulthood amidst and alongside the denizens of Prague, the elegant city that will, soon after the novel’s conclusion and the Velvet Divorce of the Czech and Slovak regions of the country, be the capital city of the new Czech Republic.
Necessary Errors is in many ways a classic Americans abroad novel, in the vein of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Jacob and his fellow expats – among them Melinda, a confident, well-educated English woman, her politically astute American lover Rafe, as well as Thom and Michael, two garrulous Scots, and Carl, Jacob’s straight friend and unrequited love from college who makes a long-term visit to Prague – like Hemingway’s characters, don’t seem to do much of anything of great value with their time. Sure they work at the language institute, teach private lessons for extra cash (in order to cope with the rising cost of living ahead of capitalism’s imminent arrival), and have occasional success in love, but the bulk of the novel, and many of it richest passages, takes place in the city’s largely state-owned bars, cafés, and restaurants. The real action unfolds in the characters’ seemingly endless supply of idle time as they debate the merits of dying communism versus ascendant capitalism and what they want to do with their lives. All of this happening under the influence of cheap harsh Czech cigarettes and what must amount to lakes of beer and liquor by the novel’s end.
Necessary Errors is also a coming of age novel. Jacob, who is openly gay at home in the States, is at first reluctant to come out in Prague. This hesitancy is partly due to Jacob’s introverted nature; books are the one place where he feels truly free. However, upon first meeting Melinda and being invited to a party, Jacob admits that he was considering going to a bar, “A gay bar,” to be exact. The gay bar in question, T-Club, was listed in a gay travel guide that Jacob went to lengths to keep surreptitiously hidden away when anyone from the language institute visited his apartment, which he rented from the cantankerous Mr. Stelikh whose daughter, Beta, is a student where Jacob teaches. In his early months in Prague, Jacob spends many evenings at T-Club where he meets Lubos and a posse of young gay Czech men led by the flamboyant Ota, who has already learned to dress in preppy American style. Jacob has a brief affair with Lubos, which is ultimately unsuccessful due to a series of misunderstandings and divergent expectations. Before they have sex for the first time, Lubos tells Jacob that he has AIDS. Upon this revelation, Jacob “leaned over Lubos and embraced him – awkwardly … in tears.” Lubos, “who had hardened a little at Jacob’s tears, said the news was recent.” A conversation ensued about the prevalence of AIDS in Eastern Europe, where the disease was still relatively rare, and America, then at the height of the AIDS crisis, Lubos tells Jacob that he made a kecám, a joke. In the final section of the novel Jacob’s luck turns around and he has the good fortune to have a much happier affair with Milo, an amateur photographer and frequent patron of T-Club.
If at times Necessary Errors seems to drag, the reader remains engaged due to Cain’s skilled prose. Almost every page of the novel is peppered with beautiful descriptions, like this one of an anti-communist Dane turned lamenter of Communism’s passage: “Golden hair on marble skin – Hans was like a sugar cookie, Jacob thought.” Or this one that describes Jacob and Milo’s nascent relationship: “They sat talking naked so often and so long perhaps because they liked to be able to read the whole opalescent page of each other at once.”
The novel ends as Jacob’s year in Prague comes to an end and he returns to America to attend graduate school, having written only one short story that he rather dislikes. Like Jacob, other characters too leave Prague, while more plan to do so, and the remainder are unsure of what lays ahead of them. Crain and this novel truly excel when discussing the travails of young adulthood: Where do I go? What do I become? Who Am I? The novel’s conclusion leaves Jacob’s answers to these questions ambiguous, yet simultaneously gratifying. One could say of Necessary Errors what Jacob’s friend Annie says of the German writer Thomas Mann, “Nothing whatever happens for pages and pages, and one doesn’t mind somehow.”
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