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Necessary Errors: A Novel

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Necessary Errors is a very good novel, an enviably good one, and to read it is to relive all the anxieties and illusions and grand projects of one’s...

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Necessary Errors: A Novel

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The Wall Street Journal • Slate • Kansas City Star • Flavorwire • Policy Mic • Buzzfeed
Necessary Errors is a very good novel, an enviably good one, and to read it is to relive all the anxieties and illusions and grand projects of one’s own youth." —James Wood, The New Yorker

An exquisite debut novel that brilliantly captures the lives and romances of young expatriates in newly democratic Prague

It’s October 1990. Jacob Putnam is young and full of ideas. He’s arrived a year too late to witness Czechoslovakia’s revolution, but he still hopes to find its spirit, somehow. He discovers a country at a crossroads between communism and capitalism, and a picturesque city overflowing with a vibrant, searching sense of possibility. As the men and women Jacob meets begin to fall in love with one another, no one turns out to be quite the same as the idea Jacob has of them—including Jacob himself.
            Necessary Errors is the long-awaited first novel from literary critic and journalist Caleb Crain. Shimmering and expansive, Crain’s prose richly captures the turbulent feelings and discoveries of youth as it stretches toward adulthood—the chance encounters that grow into lasting, unforgettable experiences and the surprises of our first ventures into a foreign world—and the treasure of living in Prague during an era of historic change.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Jacob Putnam arrived in Prague in October 1990, just months after the Velvet Revolution had secured Czechoslovakia's democracy. Living among fellow expatriates in these heady times, he shared their hopes, their speculations, and sometimes their heartbreaks. This debut novel by New York Review of Books regular Caleb Crain captures the excitement and uncertainty of a young gay college graduate testing his own freedoms in a time of great flux. A coming-of-age novel adroitly knit into a larger social setting; certain to be widely reviewed and discussed.

The New York Times - David Haglund
…one of the remarkable things about [Crain's] rather remarkable first novel…is the way he makes…the experience of an idealistic young American abroad…feel newly revelatory and important. The story is centuries old now; before Prague there was Rome, Paris, Madrid, Morocco…And Mr. Crain does not update the story with newfangled novelist's tricks, odd typography or funny drawings in the margins. He merely writes his characters and settings so well, with such precise attention to physical and psychological detail, that the reader feels introduced to a small world of people and places.
The New York Times Book Review - Aaron Hamburger
Crain wonderfully evokes the novel's setting in a few deft strokes. He's a master of the thumbnail character sketch, populating his novel with memorable supporting characters…Crain also provides telling details of expat life, like the joy of finding a store that sells cornflakes, or the constant difficulty of making plans to meet up with friends without the conveniences of landlines, let alone cellphones or electronic communication. Even better, he captures the slow pace of life of his innocents abroad, whose biggest adventure is choosing a bar for a drink…Necessary Errors heralds the fiction debut of a writer with intelligence and an engaging prose style. The book also serves as a document of a unique cultural moment that has vanished.
Publishers Weekly
Crain reinvents the novel of the innocent abroad in his well-wrought debut. Fresh off the failure of his first relationship since coming out (at least to himself), Jacob relocates from Massachusetts to Prague, where he discovers a loose-knit community of expatriates, many of whom, like Jacob, teach English to Czechs. It’s 1990, and Prague—perhaps like Jacob and his friends—is poised on the brink of changes it does not yet fully understand. Jacob, an aspiring writer, is both sensitive and observant, a witness to his friends’ romantic entanglements as well as the victim of heartbreak himself. The novel is full of the kinds of conversations shared by intelligent, earnest young people everywhere; the parallels between their idealism and uncertainty and those of their adopted country are handled with great skill. “Being here is what you’re doing, when you’re here,” Jacob observes to a friend; this freedom from responsibility and traditional aspirations is what both attracts Jacob and makes him uneasy. The unhurried pace and lack of conventional plot seem deliberate; instead, it’s Jacob’s ongoing redefining of “exile” and his discovery of self in an unfamiliar community that provide meaning and richness. (Aug.)
Kirkus Reviews
Crain takes us into the lives of expats teaching English in Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. At the core of this group is Jacob Putnam, a 20-something gay man who wants to become a writer but who's temporarily keeping body and soul together by teaching. He's also exploring his sexuality, a journey that takes him to the T-Club, a gay bar he discovered through an "alternative" guide to Prague nightlife. There, he meets a man, and they have a brief affair that initiates Jacob into the gay subculture of that city. At his day job, Jacob warily befriends a small circle of fellow teachers but is frequently unable to determine how much he should reveal to them about his sexual orientation. Rafe and Annie are a cohabiting couple, though later in the novel, Annie runs away from Prague with Carl, a friend of Jacob's. Another teacher, Thom, is a Scot who makes jokes about gays while remaining ignorant of how much this hurts Jacob. Kaspar is one of the last die-hard socialists in Prague and likes to engage Jacob in conversations weighted with philosophical significance. This brave new world of post-repressive sexual freedom is supposed to be a place where, according to Jacob, "[n]o one is allowed to limit anyone's options," but this remains a Utopian ideal as long as relationships are real (and hence un-Utopian). Ultimately, Jacob takes up with Milo, who believes Jacob to be the author he wants to become, though ironically, Jacob decides he has to leave Prague--and Milo--to become the author Milo already thinks he is. Crain's world is drenched with the climate and colors--sometimes drab--of a post-revolutionary world of possibility and promise.
Library Journal
Crain (American Sympathy) continues his ascendant career with this fully realized debut novel, which delights and surprises with every paragraph. The setting is 1990 Prague, a year after Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The story follows Jacob, a gay American college graduate whose ambitions of becoming a writer are frustrated by his surroundings. "'I'm an American,' Jacob protested. 'There's no one I can blame for holding me back.'" The plot is compelling, but Crain's talent for nuance and dialog, particularly in the gay bar scenes, is an observational wonder. Through a historic lens, Crain details the beautiful East European capital city's transition from Communist to democratic rule. VERDICT Not an easy exercise in nostalgia, this novel is a pleasure to navigate with its large, likable cast. Fans of Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station will find themselves similarly enchanted here.—Travis Fristoe, Alachua Cty. Lib. Dist., Gainesville, FL
The Barnes & Noble Review

Necessary Errors is the highly anticipated first novel of cultural critic Caleb Crain. Like many debut works of fiction, the book is a coming-of-age story. Crain's is about a young American man, Jacob, who finds himself unmoored and teaching English in recently revolutionized Czechoslovakia. Like the country, Jacob is going through a metamorphosis, testing the waters as an openly gay man. But when Czechs and expats alike ask Jacob what he is doing, he is unsure of how to answer to them or himself. He wants to write, but can't find his inspiration. "He had a sense that everything in his life up that point was prelude, which might be safely skipped by anyone who came late to the story."

Jacob may be a cipher for Crain, and Necessary Errors is proof that he has overcome his block for fiction. Each chapter of this lengthy novel, at 472 pages, features a beautifully rendered description of time and place. "He still had some American change . . . one night, after he had finished his pancakes and jam, he took the coins out . . . admired the burnt sienna patina of one of the pennies, which in the candlelight was iridescent with violet and green where people's touch had salted it." With an impressive cast of characters, including Carl, a straight friend Jacob once professed his love to in America, and the lithely beautiful Melinda, Crain has managed to capture that crystallized time in one's life, after college, when everything is terrifyingly possible. Near the end of the novel, a Czech woman, trying to articulate the idea of being tied down, says "bindings." Jacob replies, "No, that's not it." "A child is one," she says. "A garden." "Commitments," said Jacob. "She doesn't want any commitments."

Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at The New Yorker's Book Bench, NPR, The Economist, The Daily Beast, Time Out New York, Bookforum, and more. Find her at

Reviewer: Jessica Ferri

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143122418
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 8/6/2013
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 332,731
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Caleb Crain is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker,the New York Review of Books,the Nation,the New York Times Magazine,the London Review of Books, n+1, the Paris Review Daily, and the New York Times Book Review. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia, he is the author of the critical work American Sympathy. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

According to the pages on Eastern Europe that he had torn from a guide to gay life abroad purchased in Boston—burying the rest of the book at the bottom of a garbage bag full of food scraps soon after, so that no one would inadvertently come upon its advertisements for massage parlors and bath houses—there were two gay bars in Prague, and the one not described as “rough” was to be found in a street one block long near the foot of Wenceslas Square. After his last class on Friday, he made pancakes and ate them with a can of boruvky, which he had spotted in the window of a store near school, and which he thought were blueberries, since they looked and tasted like them. (They were bilberries, he discovered years later, when he had a better dictionary.) He showered, brushed the blue off his teeth, and slipped his Penguin Typee, a book he had brought with him from Boston intact, into the pocket of his raincoat. It was a long tram ride to the subway.

The tram was nearly empty. Most residents of the outlying neighborhood where he lived stayed home on a Friday night. He looked out the window idly. The tram ran through a manufacturing district, and for a mile or so there was nothing to see but low, gray, concrete-covered walls and long vertical sheets of corrugated metal ineffectually undermined by weeds. Intermittently, a wall gave way to a fence, and then a gate, through whose iron bars one could see the tall front of a factory. STANDARDS AND QUALITY FOR EVERYONE EVERYWHERE, read a slogan over the door of one of the factories. Further on, the tram ran past a housing development—a group of dirty white concrete high-rises, called paneláky.

Since he was alone in the car, Jacob slid open a window. It was a warm night. A breeze touched him haphazardly, like someone unfolding a shirt near his bare skin. Then the breeze whipped him gently in the face; he shut his eyes. When he opened them again he took out his paperback but paused on his bookmark, a postcard from a man he had fallen in love with back in America, unhappily. He knew the words on it by heart, of course: Daniel wrote that he had taken a job at a men’s magazine, which he described ironically, and foresaw that Jacob would soon have a tall, dark, Slavic lover. In a black-and-white photo on the other side, a shirtless model with a ponytail sneered angrily at the camera and seemed to be in motion toward it; the picture was blurry. Jacob had tried to convince himself he liked the image, because Daniel must have liked it, or must have thought Jacob would, or should, like it. In the time they had spent together, much of what Daniel had shared with him had taken the form of lessons. Jacob had been a poor pupil. Politics had made a path of resistance obvious. Just as he hadn’t believed Daniel’s claim that Thatcher and Reagan had brought freedom to the West as well as the East, he had declined to believe his theories of love, though he had been made to feel their power in his own case.

And now he didn’t believe this postcard. Czech men were neither tall nor dark, for the most part, and the name that Daniel had imagined for Jacob’s future lover was a Russian-sounding one, which a Czech man his age, born during the Prague Spring, would be unlikely to bear. He had traveled a long way in order to know more about something than Daniel did, Jacob observed of himself, mock-tragically. He tucked the card into a later chapter and tried to read a few pages of Melville.

At Mustek, the city’s central subway station, he alighted, and rose to the street level on an escalator that debouched beside a small pastry shop, now dark. He felt the sense of difference, the uneasy alertness, that comes over a person on the hunt. He would not be able to explain himself if any of his friends were to see him now. He felt painfully aware of the few people who glanced at him, as if a part of him was trying to keep a record of their faces, in case he had to answer to them later.

He found the street easily. The far end—it was no more than an alley, really—was boarded shut, and only the windows of one pub were lit, so once he had read this pub’s name off its windows and passed by it, he could have no pretext for walking here. Therefore he had to keep walking; he had to turn out of the street when, having doubled back, he reached the end of it; he didn’t stop until he came to Národní trída, a broad avenue a few minutes away.

There he rested his eyes on the books in a publisher’s display window and tried to think. He hadn’t seen any sign of the bar he was looking for, which was called T-Club. If you were to visit the street today, you wouldn’t find any sign of it, either; an establishment with the same name has opened in another part of town, but the particular club that Jacob was in search of that night has long since vanished, and the boards at the end of the block have been removed, to reveal a gated pocket park with wrought-iron benches, banks of flowers, and a long rectangle of water where children float toy ships with paper sails. Of course, Jacob didn’t know at the time what the boards hid; he wondered if the bar he wanted lay behind them, shuttered. He had to try again. The guide had given a street number. He would walk to that number and look slowly and carefully. He promised himself to look longer than felt comfortable.

When he retraced his steps, he found, to his surprise, that the street number corresponded to the pub with the well-lit windows. As he stood before it, awkwardly, he could see men drinking, talking, and smoking inside, a few in blue suits, most in street clothes. They were middle-aged, for the most part, many of them bearded. They had none of the self-watchfulness that Jacob associated with homosexuality. The name painted on the window was wrong, but perhaps the name had changed. Perhaps gay life in Prague was going to be different than he expected, more ordinary—plain, even. He stepped up onto the threshold.

No one turned, but the bartender shot him a look of dismay. Jacob saw his mistake. He was not in a gay place; Daniel had taught him that much about the gay world. He was in a straight place near a gay place, and partly out of courtesy, partly as a defense, the men here, he realized, kept up a pretense of blindness, which the bartender was afraid Jacob would break by asking a foolish question; with his look he was warning Jacob not to. It was no different here, Jacob decided. It was like home.

He stepped backward silently into the street, and saw, as he did, his vision sharpened by fear and anger, a flight of stairs overlooked before. They led down and to the left. No sign indicated that they led to T-Club, but Jacob followed them anyway, underground. At the bottom of the stairs was a floor-to-ceiling metal grille, painted black, into which a yellowish artificial vine had been artlessly wound. On the other side of the grille, leaning against the counter of a coat-check closet, was an attendant, a short, powerfully built man in his fifties, with a white pompadour and deeply lined, cigarette-gray skin, dressed, rather formally, in a fine white shirt and black slacks. He nodded when Jacob said good evening. Beyond him, around a corner, was the bar. Jacob could hear the tinny sound of European disco played on small speakers.

Since the attendant did not offer to open the grille, Jacob tugged at it. It seemed to be locked. There was no knob to turn. —Please, Jacob said in Czech, tracing a small circle in the air with an index finger, to signify unlocking.

Místo není.” The man shook his head. There isn’t room. “Keine raum,” the man added, in German, pronouncing the words as if he were addressing a child. He tapped a paper sign taped to the grille, on which was written a word Jacob did not know, no doubt an advisement that the bar was full.

—Later? Jacob asked in Czech.

For an answer, the man tilted his head back slightly and then looked away. The tilt might have been a variation on a shrug, an indication that the attendant didn’t know the answer to Jacob’s question, but his manner was so heavy with scorn that the gesture might equally have been a comment on the kind and number of questions it was his lot to endure. Jacob held both possibilities in mind and continued to study the man. He knew no other way to make sense of signals he didn’t understand. He knew no other way to make sense of signals he didn’t understand. He knew as yet only a few words of the language, and he had to make sense of such signals often, keeping, as a conversation progressed, a larger and larger hand of possibilities, like a player losing at a card game, until at last he was given a hint—drew a card that decided possibilities—and found himself free to set a number of them down.

A couple of men in their thirties pattered quietly down the stairs. They greeted the attendant, just as quietly, and he unlocked the grille with a large, old-fashioned key, admitted them, and, before Jacob had understood what was happening, locked the grille again behind them. There was no small talk as he checked their coats; they weren’t, in other words, the attendant’s friends.

It was a puzzle. Perhaps the attendant thought Jacob was too young for a gay bar and was protecting him. Or perhaps he thought Jacob, as a foreigner, might have come to the wrong place. Of course the sight of the two men just admitted, whose aspect was not ambiguous, would have cleared up Jacob’s misapprehensions, if he had been suffering from any. —Please, Jacob said in Czech, approaching the grille again, and gesturing along the path the men had just taken. —There’s room now?

The attendant answered rapidly and angrily, flicking a hand after the two men, as in dismissal. Jacob didn’t understand, and he expected that the man would yell at him in German if he asked him to repeat himself. He watched the attendant walk away, to the far end of the short corridor that was his province, and light a cigarette.

He couldn’t tell whether pressing his case had bettered or worsened it, but the attendant didn’t seem to object to his continuing to wait, so he took out his paperback. His eyes passed hollowly over the words.

At last there were shoes on the stairs again—louder this time, a clatter—and three young Czechs rushed down. The tallest, who had a comically long face and thin, sandy curls, seemed to be telling his companions a joke, which he himself laughed loudest at. “Dobrý vecer,” he saluted the attendant. There was something arch about the formality with which he spoke the greeting, and Jacob felt at once that he liked the young man. He drifted away from the wall he’d been leaning against, with the intention of slipping in behind the trio as soon as the attendant opened the grille. “Ahoj,” the tall, curly-haired man said to Jacob out of the corner of his mouth—now his voice was feline, and the greeting, sounding very much like the sailor’s hello in English, was a familiar one—to intimate that he had noticed Jacob’s approach.

The attendant had noticed it, too, and because Jacob didn’t want to take advantage of the young men’s entrée unless he was sure of their permission, and because he was put momentarily at a loss by the touch of proposal in the young man’s voice, he hesitated, and the attendant slammed the grille in his face with a clang.

“Hey,” Jacob said in English, startled into his own language.

“Are you American?” the tall young man asked through the grille. He had heavy-lidded, drowsy-looking eyes, but the rest of him seemed to be constantly in motion—turning, stretching, adjusting.


“Come and talk to us,” he offered.

“I’d like to,” Jacob answered. It seemed superfluous to say that he wasn’t certain of getting in.

The three young men checked their coats, the tall one spinning, as they did, a long commentary that seemed to touch on every detail of the transaction, even down to the numbers on their claim checks, which must have been funny or lucky, because the other men laughed when the tall one called the numbers out, but Jacob could detect nothing in the way of an appeal to the attendant on his behalf, and soon the three turned the corner, out of sight, the tall one acknowledging Jacob’s predicament by no more than a wistful half wave, his hand at waist level behind him.

Jacob paced back and forth, then looked up the stairs that led to the street, deliberating. Unexpectedly, at this moment, the attendant whistled at him, as if he were a horse or a dog, unlocked the grille, and said, in English, “Please.”

He quickly stepped inside. The attendant extended his hand for his coat, smiling with a perfect falsity, and Jacob surrendered it. Sometimes Jacob had a hateful capacity to go along. He paid the two crowns and took his claim check. The attendant had no shyness about meeting his gaze. Jacob wondered what he would have to do later on, to get his coat back.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2013

    I am struggling with this book. Am not halfway through, waiting

    I am struggling with this book. Am not halfway through, waiting for it to get is so darn boring. The plot is blah. The characters are blah. Even the historical aspect is blah. 

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2014

    This was the novel of the year, and has been called that right a

    This was the novel of the year, and has been called that right across the board by the top reviewers. Some comments here are totally off the wall. Google it or else go to that other large online bookseller to see all the reasons why. But here's one: it makes you feel 22 again.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 3, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Author, forgive me

    Fortunately, this author will not depend me for success. I read about 40 pages of this book and wondered why this guy was so boring.

    Perhaps it's a generational thing, could I be too old to find interest in finding a young American go bar hopping through old Europe?

    I found the book grindingly boring.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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