Dan Kois’ packed ’90s New York novel ‘Vintage Contemporaries’

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Vintage Contemporaries

By Dan Kois
Harper: 336 pages, $28

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In the event you’d been capable of view my bookshelves within the Nineteen Nineties, you’d have seen dozens, if not scores, of Vintage Contemporaries — editions of the imprint based in 1984 to funnel tons of of au courant Knopf titles into trade-paperback kind — from Richard Russo, Ann Beattie and the ’80s literary Brat Pack on by the youngish stars of subsequent a long time (Sapphire, Jenny Offill, Hari Kunzru).

The imprint made nice fiction cheaper and simpler to tote in backpacks and diaper luggage, however now that they’ve ceded supremacy to e-books and audiobooks, these editions — particularly the older ones, with their jazzy neon covers — evoke a barely retro really feel. Which may be one of many causes Dan Kois, a longtime books editor at Slate, selected the label because the title of his debut novel; “Vintage Contemporaries” follows two buddies, each named Emily, who land in Manhattan within the early Nineteen Nineties with totally different backgrounds and goals.

Emily the narrator — “Em” when she’s with the opposite Emily — got here to New York from suburban Wisconsin with obscure notions of working in publishing however valuable few credentials or connections. She manages to land a job as assistant to a literary agent named Edith Safer, “of the old school,” the very mannequin of an éminence grise. In one other stroke of luck, her mom mentions an outdated faculty good friend named Lucy Deming who has just a few books in want of a writer.

Lucy is blunt about her targets: “In a nutshell, I would like to make some money this time, so I can stop writing instruction manuals for digital watches.” Em is blissful to oblige after studying the novel (“It was a little corny, but it wasn’t incompetent or embarrassing”), and earns Lucy a wholesome advance. Briefly order, Em is recruited into Lucy’s “Upper Upper West Side” life, spending time with Lucy’s daughter Sarah, cooking collectively, soaking within the magnificence and peace with which Lucy surrounds herself in a metropolis with little of both to spare. It’s a world away from the communal Decrease East Aspect squat that Emily, an aspiring artist from Athens, Ga., calls residence.

From residence decor to meals obsessions and even her path to publication, Lucy bears a putting resemblance to a real-life Vintage Contemporaries creator. Laurie Colwin, who died in 1992 at age 48, could be finest remembered immediately for her volumes “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking,” discursive collections of recipes and recollections that a few of us nonetheless depend on when making a roast rooster or baking one of the best gingerbread. Kois even makes use of “front-cover copy” from the Pocket Books paperback of Colwin’s novel “Happy All the Time” as an epigraph: “Life never worked out so well! Love never had it so good!”

Colwin was recognized in life as in writing for her cheer and bonhomie, in addition to her capability to create a cocktail party within the smallest bedsit. Kois’ homage performs out and contemporizes Colwin’s cockeyed optimism, utilizing a well-worn however heartfelt story of two buddies on divergent paths — Em forging a profession and a household, Emily foundering for years earlier than discovering her method — to point out that not everybody has to reside a magical life to outlive within the huge metropolis.

As Emily descends into an abusive relationship and drug behavior, the buddies turn into estranged and Em is pulled additional into Lucy’s orbit. And as Lucy begins succumbing to a degenerative sickness, she strikes to push household away — providing Em, not directly, a lesson in each the shortness of life and the probabilities of reconciliation. We are able to make grievous errors out of affection, however that doesn’t obviate our connections or our obligations. Love by no means had it so good.

On a literal stage the “vintage contemporaries” on this guide are Em and Emily, buddies of the identical age who concurrently come of age. However the title additionally appears like a nod to the imprint’s reissue of a number of Colwin books final 12 months. (Full disclosure: I wrote a blurb for these titles.) In mashing up his characters’ experiences with Colwin’s, Kois not solely brings a sure lightness to a long time which are as filled with loss and angst as they’re of discovery and triumph; he reminds us that darkness and lightweight all the time coexist.

Which brings me to my one drawback with this novel: an excessive amount of coexisting. Kois toggles amongst so many alternative scenes and characters that I typically wished he had made some extra of his personal arduous selections. He may have targeted extra on the connection Em and Lucy, or Em and Emily — or extra on each if he’d taken out bits in regards to the Strand bookstore, the intricacies of guide publishing, late-night events adopted by pierogi at Veselka — components that may be enjoyable, however of their profusion felt caught someplace between ambiance and subplot.

One main subplot does bear fruit, in its method: Em and Emily work arduous, towards the tip of the story, to assist longtime members of Emily’s former squat protest a metropolis takeover. Their efforts come to naught, nevertheless it doesn’t matter. Em has moved to Inwood along with her household. Emily will disappear, like so lots of the folks from our early years. We shut on Em, nonetheless modifying, although considering the leap to writing books of her personal.

Life goes on. The town stays unsleeping. Younger folks arrive, some keep and a few go, some succeed and a few fail. Some observe, the higher to remind us of their time and place within the tales they are going to later inform. Em at one level tells her daughter, “I’m always watching.”

Though Kois now lives in Northern Virginia, his recollections of Nineteen Nineties Manhattan inform us that he was too. “Vintage Contemporaries” is crammed a bit too filled with plot, not in contrast to the cramped metropolis it paperwork. Fortuitously, it’s additionally overstuffed with bittersweet magnificence, not in contrast to the classic contemporaries of Laurie Colwin.

Patrick is a contract critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.