Pride and pretence

<strong>All the Sad Young Literary Men</strong>

Keith Gessen <em>William Heinemann, 256pp, £12.99<

Ivy League graduates have never had it so hard. Mark is keen to write a definitive PhD thesis on revolutionary Russia, but is distracted by his predilection for internet porn. Sam is determined to produce “the great Zionist novel”, but is hampered by his lack of Hebrew and has to check his email before he can really get started. Keith, the son of Russian immigrants, is haunted by his family’s broken past and plagued with regret over the failure of his relationship.

Each of Gessen’s sad, young literary men has pretensions to godlike greatness, but each is compromised by his own flawed humanity. At times, this is a source of kind amusement, such as the “looming ethical dilemma” Keith faces – “in his loins”. Elsewhere, the satire is scathing; it is difficult not to wince on hearing how Sam, “refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust . . . decided to put the rest of his life in order”.

These men are – as the title declares – types, differentiated more by situation than by defining characteristics. Gessen’s debut novel is a coming-of-age story which accepts the possibility that not everyone comes of age. His skill lies in making these overprivileged young men as likeable as they are laughable.