The title of Keith Gessen's debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, references the F. Scott Fitzgerald collection All the Sad Young Men. The reference is reflected in the book's structure: Rather than flowing as a typical novel would, Gessen's segmented narrative is split between three protagonists. They each possess literary ambitions that interfere with their abilities to maintain relationships with women, and because the three characters aren't very different from one another (all being sad, young, and literary), the triplicate stories sometimes blur and overlap. Still, Gessen—founder of literary journal n+1—has crafted a book that is breezily funny, accurately skewering the ego and confusion of these driven, dysfunctional young men.
Inflated by a good education and the hot, arrogant air of youth, Sam is determined to write the great Zionist novel, one that fully documents the history of Jews in Israel. He screws up at work, alienates all his friends, and carelessly sabotages his relationships with women. In the book's most gripping passage, Sam travels to the West Bank, where the very real daily violence permanently alters his outlook.
Meanwhile, in the bleak winter of Syracuse, Mark, stuggling with an interminable thesis, loses his wife and becomes addicted to internet porn, then moves to Brooklyn to find he's able to get laid after all. Indeed, the book views New York City as the solution to most people's problems—including the third protagonist, Keith, who bumbles through college and a series of dead-on-arrival relationships while living in—gasp!—Baltimore, before moving to New York and finding his voice as a political analyst.
Women here are vaguely sketched and interchangeable, and the three men play sexual musical chairs with several of the female characters. But various narrative strands intersect only tangentially; there's never a satisfying payoff where all three men are in the same room together. At times, I had trouble keeping track of who dated whom and which sad young literary man was sad about what. Still, the fragmented storytelling style accurately captures the twentysomethings' search for identity in a social haze, where school connections fade, political ideals are blunted with time, and the craving for sex turns into the need for companionship.