Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Absinthe Association (Athenaide Dallett)

I have been highly suspicious of charisma my entire adult life, and if I learned that attitude anywhere, it was during my undergraduate years at Yale University. So a novel about Ivy League charisma - Harvard, in this case - will speak to me in a very particular way.

Athenaide Dallett's The Absinthe Association, which is loosely based on actual personalities and events of the late 1990s, tells the story of a band of recent Harvard graduates and their friends who became smitten with the concept of privately distilling the legendary and then-still-illegal spirit absinthe. In the novel, they go to a LOT of trouble to achieve this, and the details of their scheming and execution are highly entertaining. Not to mention their constant consumption of the "Green Fairy," once they've succeeded in making it.

This story provides the novel a solid structure within which other questions can be explored, and male charisma seems to me to be the most potent of these. Dallett contrasts two varieties of charisma as embodied in two of the key protagonists, the good-time, ringleading extrovert Dennis Bianchi, who concocts the absinthe project in the first place, and the harder-to-peg Brendan Burke, who is along for the ride.

Dennis Bianchi's charisma is social and based on personality, and is felt by every character in the book. His two most important relationships are with his ambivalent girlfriend-then-wife, Julia, and his buddy Rob, who plays Nick Carraway to his Gatsby. ("...from the moment he met Dennis, Rob had never had another dull weekend or lonely afternoon.") Dennis is responsible for bringing everyone in his circle on board with the absinthe-making, including a group of his local buddies from Providence, Rhode Island, just a short drive from the Boston area. The inclusion of the Providence guys expands the social scope of the novel tellingly.

Brendan Burke's charisma is sexual and based on looks, and is especially felt by one young British woman, Annabel, who has come to Harvard for graduate school in literature (a program she shares with Rob, who not-so-secretly fixates on her). Brendan is remote, cucumber-cool, hard-to-get, and a god: "Brendan was, quite simply, the most golden of all the golden boys Annabel had ever admired in a long history of admiring the assorted charms of boys...he had a tall, broad-shouldered masculinity, an athletic ease that struck Annabel as peculiarly American."

The contrast between Dennis and Brendan and what they represent is very nicely handled by Dallett. I got my first exposure to both these types at Yale. As a gay man, of course I have always been susceptible to the Brendans, and was right there with Annabel every step of the way - although one might say that for a sophisticated woman, she is a little slow on the uptake in realizing that the Brendans are a waste of time to pursue. They choose; they are never chosen.

Dennis is a quite different kettle of fish. Call it envy if you wish, but I always despised the Dennises, and did not do much better with this one. Like all hardcore extroverts, Dennis needs people around but does not understand them very well. He is, in a word, obtuse, and he certainly fails to notice that the members of his Absinthe Association are getting in way over their heads.

The sense of unease that subtly builds over the implications of the absinthe law-breaking - these kids do not simply leave breadcrumbs on the trail, they leave whole loaves - fuels another of the emotional plots, Julia's inner debate over whether Dennis is the right man for her. As a product of the deeply socially conservative Philadelphia Main Line, she is drawn to his devil-may-care attitudes partly because they disregard the "rules." But it can get to be a bit much for her, too; too much for the long haul? There is a marvelous chapter in which Dennis rises to a difficult situation and you can sense Julia leaning back towards him. A feminist might notice that it is precisely Dennis's traditional masculine competency that re-enamors her - but isn't that exactly how it might be, given her upbringing?

The only point at which I felt the novel falter was in the convergence of all the actions in a tragic denouement. I am not giving anything away by saying that the resolution is tragic, since Dallett opens the novel with flash-forwards. What bothered me was that a key element of the ending depends on a character getting away with an evasive maneuver that, in my opinion, would be impossible to pull off in real life. To be fair, the violation of reality here is no worse than that of many movie thrillers, but the rest of the book is so scrupulous about its materials that I felt a bit of letdown when I started to feel credibility flying out the window.

Nonetheless, that is only 5% of the book, albeit the final 5%. In general, The Absinthe Association  can be strongly recommended.

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