Published by Viking on August 2, 2012
Now that Norah Vincent has Thy Neighbor out of her system, perhaps she will apply her talent to a more meaningful project. The novel's protagonist, Nick Walsh, is such a caricature of an immature male that I wondered whether Vincent modeled him after someone she felt the need to ridicule. Nick's friend Dave is just as bad. Every significant male character, in fact, is either abusive or emotionally stunted.
The story is told in the first person from Nick's perspective. Vincent doesn't write with a convincing male voice. Nor is Nick a convincing character. He is both extremely shallow and intensely self-analytical, two conflicting qualities that do not belong in the same persona. Although Nick is self-deprecating to the point of being self-eviscerating, his descriptions of himself read as though they are being supplied by a third party -- which, of course, they are.
Nick's personality is a checklist of male stereotypes. He is self-absorbed. He fails to clean up after himself. He doesn't know how to take a proper interest in women. He doesn't listen. Although he wants to feel loved and appreciated, getting laid is his defining desire. He is intimidated by any woman who has a brain -- like his sex buddy Monica. While Vincent takes shots at needy overweight women and the "hausfraus" who watch Ellen and Oprah, immature and abusive men remain the bulls-eye in her satirical dartboard.
Why is Nick such a mess? We are well into the novel before Vincent reveals Nick's dark secret, but by then I didn't care. The reader suffers through many chapters filled with Nick's tedious introspection while waiting for something interesting to happen. When he's not bemoaning the existence of Facebook or opining about the nature of trust, Nick indulges in whiny and self-pitying monologues about his horrible childhood. To the extent that the story has a plot, it is driven by accusations (founded and unfounded) of pedophilia, by Nick's use of hidden cameras to spy on his neighbors, by the badly behaving daughter of Nick's cougarish neighbor, and by Nick's connection to another neighbor, Anita Bloom, whose daughter (Nick's childhood friend) went missing thirteen years earlier. Nearly two-thirds of the novel passes by before the plot develops any sort of momentum. Not that it matters; the story that finally emerges is so preposterous that I didn't believe a word of it.
Some of the scenes in Thy Neighbor are disgusting. Descriptions of repulsive behavior don't bother me if they serve a purpose, but Vincent had no purpose that I could discern. Perhaps she was going for shock value (is there such a thing these days?). If so, she sacrificed credibility for the sake of cheap thrills. The penultimate scene is over-the-top and the story's conclusion, while meant to leave the reader gasping with surprise, is so contrived it made me giggle.
Vincent's capable prose style kept me from ditching Thy Neighbor and turning to something better -- that, and the hope that Vincent would work her way to a story worth telling. She knows how to write zingers, some of which are reasonably funny, and she occasionally produces a clever metaphor. In the end, though, melodrama dressed up in a stylish, sophisticated form is still melodrama. Sometimes I'm a fan of melodrama, but not this time. I would include a warning that, due to its foul language and scatological content, this book isn't appropriate for minors, but really, I can't think of an audience for whom it might be appropriate.