The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress

By Scott Nadelson


Hawthorne Books
March 2013

Reviewed by Tyler McMahon


In a recent New Yorker piece entitled "Cry Me a River," Giles Harvey describes the rise of the Failure Memoir, a new genre in which (mostly male) writers document the implosions of their literary aspirations, often with accompanying breakdowns in their personal relationships and mental health. "The formula is simple," claims Harvey: "when all else fails, write about your failure." 

The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress somehow escaped Harvey's notice, despite meeting most of the Failure Memoir's requisite criteria. Nadelson is indeed a male fiction writer, the author of three previous story collections. The breakdown in Nadelson's life occurs a month before his wedding, when his fiancé leaves him for someone else. That someone turns out to be another woman, a drag king who cross-dresses as "Donny Manicotti." Donny, it turns out, bears an uncanny resemblance to some New Jersey adolescents who once tormented the author's teenage self. The moment he's done explaining this matter to his would-be wedding guests, Nadelson's car breaks down. His cat develops a terminal illness. Barely getting by as a composition instructor, he moves to a cheap attic apartment and looks to the Internet for dates. In his own words:

I'd always prided myself on being someone who appreciated the absurdity of life, who didn't take it too seriously, but there's an enormous difference, I discovered, between reading a Kafka novel or watching a Woody Allen movie and living inside of one.

A collection of autobiographical essays, The Next Scott Nadelson isn't a strict chronological telling of the author's journey to rock bottom. It includes tangents into childhood memories, classroom episodes, and moving tributes to Nadelson's favorite writers and musicians. One of the most interesting pieces recounts the author's obsession with the web-presence of a teenager who shares his name. Still, there is a decidedly strong, if downward-bound, narrative arc that runs from beginning to end.

The principal difference, it seems to me, between Nadelson's book and the set described by Harvey, is a matter of humility. The authors described in "Cry Me a River" all have grandiose expectations regarding the life of the writer; most go to New York to pursue them. Their central failure is that of not making a full-time career of their writing. (A notion that now seems as anachronistic as it does brazen.) It's the trappings of literature that have so disappointed them, more so than the literature itself.

This isn't so in the case of The Next Scott Nadelson. An author of short fiction who long ago abandoned the East Coast for Portland, Oregon, Nadelson's ego doesn't have as far to fall. In fact, his story is made all the more gut-wrenching by the fact that his broken dreams were such humble ones: to write, to teach in his discipline, to live in a small city with a loving wife, a healthy cat, and a car that runs. Is that too much to ask?

It's true that the book draws its title from frequent comparisons made—both by bookstore denizens and by reviews in Jewish newspapers—to Philip Roth.

No one would ever come up to a young Jewish writer from New Jersey and say, You're the next fucking Scott Nadelson, no matter how many books I wrote, no matter how successful I was...This other young Jewish writer from New Jersey would just be the new next fucking Philip Roth, one more in a long series of next fucking Philip Roths, all of us lined up from now to the end of time, or until New Jersey was swallowed up by the rising sea, and none of us would really be the next fucking Philip Roth, because there was only one fucking Philip Roth, now and forever.

However, Nadelson is not one to wallow in self-pity, and he never confuses writing for a path to fame and fortune. If there's one note that rings out clearly and convincingly throughout this memoir, it's the author's genuine passion for books, for stories, for films, and for music. He writes beautifully about his heroes and inspirations, from Isaac Babel and Anton Chekhov to David Lynch and Townes Van Zandt. While art may no longer be a viable career, Nadelson proves that it is still more than capable of moving its audience, and of easing their pain.

In this way, The Next Scott Nadelson has valuable lessons for the writers and artists of the 21st century, the authors of the post-career age. For one thing, he manages to put his finger right on the pulse of our anxieties, to draw a convincing sketch of what so many of us fear might become of our lives: stringing together sections of freshman composition in order to survive, spending all we have on vet bills and whiskey, finding cold comfort in a skill set that's as hard-earned as it is irrelevant. But his story also shows the redeeming qualities of a life in letters: genuine praise from a stranger on the street, fleeting moments of inspiration in the classroom, fellowship with other writers. Most importantly, Nadelson reminds us that to give up writing is—in most cases—simply not within our abilities.

Giles Harvey describes the lack of commercial reception from one's fiction as, "a decidedly First World problem." He is correct. But in the case of Scott Nadelson, his bigger problem is that the person he loves doesn't return his feelings—an awful plight in any place, or any age. Perhaps this is why it's so easy to root for him. With a voice that's smart, candid, self-effacing, and immensely likeable, Nadelson's memoir is a complete success.