There’s a reason why weddings have featured prominently in so many fictional narratives over the years. They provide a reason for numerous characters to come together; they allow for a host of dramatic or comedic situations, and they’re a ready-made conclusion for many a situation.
A wedding sets the plot of Minneapolis writer Dylan Hicks’ second novel, “Amateurs,” into motion, but it’s a sprawling, unconventional one, which suits this story of tentative romance and literary jealousy.
At the heart of the novel is a writer named Archer, author of two novels, one of which has made him into a minor literary celebrity. Archer’s wedding draws together a disparate group, ranging from his cousin Karyn to the widely dispersed group of friends he knew from a decade earlier, and whom the reader encounters in a series of flashbacks that parallel the lead-up to the wedding.
Archer comes from an affluent background, and Hicks is sharpest at examining the effects of this wealth on Archer’s relationship with his peers and with creativity as a whole. His relationship with Sara, a fellow writer whom he hires as an unacknowledged collaborator/ghostwriter, makes for the most dramatically compelling and most situationally awkward moments in the book.
There’s a lot happening in “Amateurs.” At times, its density can be foreboding: The pages in which Hicks introduces the cast of characters across two parallel timelines early in the book can be slow going. It’s the sort of novel where trusting in the fact that a payoff will come is essential to reading it. And, in fact, several seemingly minor details, including one character’s obsession with his own annotations of the work of others, tend to pay off by the time the book reaches its conclusion.
There are other subplots that provide more of a sense of comic relief — for all that the Archer/Sara dynamic raises questions of art, money and privilege, there’s a funhouse reflection in another character’s efforts to raise money for a vinyl bag business with the unfortunate name Brand Nubagian.
“Amateurs” also memorably captures a sense of frustrated ambition through the contrast established between seeing several of these characters in 2011, when the wedding takes place, and then throughout the previous decade. This is illustrated most powerfully through Sara’s stifled literary career, but it’s something with which nearly every character in this novel must grapple. The setup of Hicks’ novel is the stuff of classic comic fiction; the minute details and anxieties that surround its characters, however, are what endures.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
By: Dylan Hicks.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 262 pages, $16.95.
Event: Book launch, 7 p.m. May 19, Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls.