David Amsden's debut novel is an absorbing and often funny fictional account that at times borrows liberally from the author's own experience. But it is also a daring narrative that resonates with the heartbreaking emotion that lurks between Amsden's sharply written lines. The story, a series of vignettes charting the "anti-coming-of-age" of the nameless narrator in Rockville, Maryland, is simple and without any real turning point; the payoff here is in Amsden's keen storytelling ability.
At 19, David Amsden had a lucrative but unrewarding career writing short stories for New York magazine about a world he did not know. Then one day a friend suggested to Amsden that he write down a few of his own, more interesting anecdotes instead. These stories eventually became the novel Important Things That Don't Matter. With a voice that could only belong to someone raised in the 1980s and 1990s, when "divorce became the norm rather than a phenomenon," Amsden tells the story of a child of divorced parents growing up in the stable environment of his mother's home. The boy is obviously affected by intimacy issues which he acquires from his father. Passages in which the narrator, at age seven, hangs out at a dive bar on a weekend visit with his father and those that feature his father's dubious friends are disturbingly effective. As chapters pass, we witness a series of events that shape the young man's life; the story ends when the narrator is only 20. Amsden himself, a 23-year-old whose childhood was colored by bits of television fluff like Beverly Hills 90210 and Nancy Reagan's hackneyed "just say no" anti-drug campaign, is a new breed of writer: one whose coming was ushered in by the poster child for his generation, Dave Eggers. But unlike Eggers, Amsden does not rely on cute literary embellishments to tell his story. Instead, his tale unfolds with stark honesty, allowing us to get inside the author's mind in a way that at times may be too close for comfort but is all the more riveting because of it. Thomas A. Grasso lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.