With Apathy and Other Small Victories, Portland author Paul Neilan adds one more character to the modern literary world's growing list of intentionally unsympathetic first-person protagonists. Surprisingly, Neilan succeeds in the one area where many of his more established contemporaries fail—establishing a readable, engaging story using nothing but characters that readers should not give a shit about.
When the book begins, Shane is an unemployed twenty something who spends his time chugging pitchers of Miller High Life in an unnamed town that strongly resembles Portland. Within a few pages we learn that Shane is involved with a woman whose approach to sex can be described as "brutal," and he's implicated in the murder of a deaf dental assistant. And he compulsively steals saltshakers from bars.
While Neilan manages to somehow tell an entertaining story through the voice of a completely apathetic and possibly antisocial (in the clinical sense) character, the book is filled with so much random, unnecessary, and forced quirkiness, that Apathy is almost dismissible. For instance, the above-mentioned stealing of saltshakers: It's referenced throughout the book, but as a literary device, the compulsive theft is little more than a way to make Shane seem strange. Given the character's overwhelmingly odd behavior in situations that actually advance the story, this detail is superfluous.
That said, Apathy still succeeds more often than it fails. For instance, the bulk of the short novel (novella?) is centered around Shane's horrifyingly familiar temp job at a monolithic insurance company. He gets praised for his alphabetizing skills, shows up to work plastered, and sleeps in the bathroom stall. A particularly heinous scene involves Shane's boss coming up with a new slogan for "Inspiration Alley"—a line of cubicle walls featuring hysterically "inspiring" quotes meant to give cube-dwellers a sense of pride in their meaningless jobs and existences. It's one of those "anyone who's ever spent any time in a drab office environment will totally get this" things.