Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Benjamin Nugent's "Good Kids"

EVERY once in a while, something – a book, a short New York Times story, an n+1 essay – appears by a mysterious character named Benjamin Nugent, and damn if every time it isn't funny, smart and insightful.

Now Nugent – who I’ve interviewed over the years on Elliott Smith, songcraft, and the history of nerd-dom – has a new novel called Good Kids. All I can tell you so far is that its opening chapters have some of the best, most well-observed writing I’ve seen on the blurry mystery of teenage-dom: I expect the publisher and reviewers will compare the novel to Noah Baumbach’s movie The Squid and the Whale, and not just for its kid's eye view of marital discord.

Nugent lived from time to time in Los Angeles during the oughts, which included, I think, a hipster/celebrity brush with greatness I will not get into here. Now back in his native New England, where he lives in Somerville and teaches at Southern New Hampshire University, Nugent happily walked down memory lane a bit for us here at the Misread City. He’s at Vroman’s in Pasadena on Thursday night.

So what years did you live in LA, and how did that time shape or influence your book?

I bounced back and forth between LA and New York from 2003 to 2009. LA was a dominating influence on Good Kids. I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, a college town with an insular culture that followed its own peculiar codes. And it looked like a place that lived by its own closed system of rules. It valued decreptitude and liberalism and Jungian self-scrutiny. 

But LA fascinated me because it was this anarchic miasma of a place, a massive spill of broken glass glimpsed from a plane. And yet the little world of people I knew in TV and music was an insular brother/sisterhood, just like Amherst, with its own initially inscrutable codes. There's a scene in Good Kids at Disney Concert Hall downtown where everybody runs into each other watching Joanna Newsom play with the Philharmonic, and I loved writing it. I was intrigued by this tribe that drew together accidentally from time to time, despite being dispersed across a thirty-mile zone.

Now that you are relocated back to New England, what do you miss most from our shores?

The smell of the hills in Silver Lake; it's like really strong weed mixed with really healthy cat pee.

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