The November Criminals

The November Criminals

3.0 2
by Sam Munson

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A dark and hilarious pot-infused novel of teenage maladjustment from a compelling new voice in American fiction.
For a high school senior Addison Schacht has a lot of preoccupations, like selling drugs to his classmates, getting into college, and his complicated relationship with his best friend (NOT his girlfriend) Digger. And he's just added another


A dark and hilarious pot-infused novel of teenage maladjustment from a compelling new voice in American fiction.
For a high school senior Addison Schacht has a lot of preoccupations, like selling drugs to his classmates, getting into college, and his complicated relationship with his best friend (NOT his girlfriend) Digger. And he's just added another to the list: the murder of his classmate Kevin Broadus, and his own obsessive plan to investigate the death. When presented with an essay question on his application to the University of Chicago--What are your best and worst qualities?--Addison finds himself provoked into giving his final, unapologetic say about all of the above and more, and the thrilling result is an unforgettable trip through the Washington, D.C. teenage underworld.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A clever debut.”—The Daily Beast
“Munson keeps things lightly dark.”—Publishers Weekly
“A compelling character. . . . In the tradition of Huck and Holden.”—Bookforum
“Rather hilarious. . . . Irresistible.”—Booklist
“Combines a classic sense of adolescent alienation and a keen comedic voice.”—Kirkus

"Has the inventive, expansive flare of Michael Chabon's best writing and the highbrow-crime intrigue of a Donna Tartt book."—Vanity Fair
Sam Munson has written one of the funniest, most heartfelt novels in recent memory—a book every bit as worthy of Mark Twain and J. D. Salinger.“—Chicago Tribune
“A thoughtful coming-of-age story and an engaging teenage noir. . . . [Sam Munson is an] audacious new writer.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Munson is a freewheeling stylist. . . . [Addison] Schacht really is Holden [Caulfield]’s amoral 21st-century cousin.”—The Washington Post

Publishers Weekly
Munson’s funny, stoner-friendly debut follows high school senior Addison Schacht as he stumbles through the Washington, D.C., teenage underworld to investigate a classmate’s unsolved murder. Schacht—a small-time pot dealer, consummate anti-social, and Jewish collector of Holocaust jokes—makes for a poor but entertaining detective, and when he places a stoned phone call to his prime suspect, Addison and his friends become caught up in the mystery he set out to solve. As Addison’s sleuthing begins to unravel and his life crumbles along with it, his ramblings offer an interesting counter to, and often context for, his misguided attempt to discover the truth. Munson keeps things lightly dark, though his weakness for wandering asides—Addison is just as likely to riff on the Aeneid, Latin syntax, or his favorite movies as he is to discuss his investigation and efforts to outsmart the police—trips up the pace, even if they are what one would expect from a self-absorbed adolescent. The plotting could use some work, but Munson nails the voice. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Set in Washington, DC, in the late 1990s, this novel answers a college application question: "What are your best and worst qualities?" Given the psychological complexity of its writer, the gifted and disaffected high schooler Addison Schacht, the answer is extensive. A small-time drug dealer and advanced Latin student (he's a devotee of Virgil's Aeneid), Addison is also involved in a "nonrelationship" with the equally gifted but more levelheaded Phoebe "Digger" Zeleny. After the murder of classmate Kevin Broadus, a kid he barely knew, Addison becomes obsessed with solving the murder mystery. When he hears a rumor of an alleged perpetrator, he embarks, along with Digger, on a reckless quest to bring him to justice. VERDICT First novelist Munson, an online editor at Commentary, takes the young, alienated hero/antihero trope à la Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield in a decidedly contemporary direction. However, Addison's negativity and detachment make him less engaging than his spiritual predecessors, and overall the novel is not entirely successful.—Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, North Andover, MA
Kirkus Reviews
High-school student with dreams of collegiate glory investigates the murder of a classmate. Debut novelist Munson combines a classic sense of adolescent alienation and a keen comedic voice to depict a bleakly funny teenage wasteland in the wilds of the District of Columbia. The book is structured around the college essay question of one Addison Schacht, a smart 18-year-old high-school senior who supplements the dreary monotony of life in an upper-middle-class D.C. suburb with a sideline selling marijuana to his equally well-off classmates. But Addison fully intends to surpass his peers with a meteoric rise to academic greatness-as a classics major, no less. His only real comrade in his delusional struggle is best friend and soul mate Phoebe "Digger" Zeleny, a funny, sly young woman Addison repeatedly declares is not his girlfriend by any stretch of the imagination. The crime to which our hero devotes himself is the startling death of his classmate Kevin Broadus, gunned down in a coffee shop near the Potomac. Two others were also killed, but the murderer took the time to pump a dozen bullets into Kevin. "You had to figure all the extra bullets . . . meant something," Addison says. Echoes of James Fuerst's Huge (2009) and the 2005 film Brick abound, but deft comic timing and a caustic, ambitious protagonist make this a perfectly valid entry in the teen noir subgenre.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.80(w) x 5.20(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

I.     You've asked me to explain what my best and worst qualities are. So let me begin by saying that it's hard, ladies and gentlemen, for me to consider myself a bad person. I mean, I experience qualms, sometimes more serious and sometimes less. Everyone, evena real champion of immorality, sees himself as good. Or as working for the good, no matter if his actions--looked at one by one--are transparently self-serving, murderous, etc. Kind of a strong argument against the value of terms like good or bad. People feelthis way even now, in 1999, when we're all supposed to be repenting and wailing and gnashing our teeth. But you can't go through life without making any distinctions. And selling small-to-medium amounts of weed to safe, calm rich kids (which I spent much ofmy spare time these past four years doing) is not a behavior worth agonizing over. That would make it seem too important, you know? I don't even need the money.      

Nonetheless--judged by my actions--I am a bad person. Let's get that clear, so you don't have any misconceptions. For more than one-fifth of my life to date, I was a drug dealer, albeit a minor one, and a client of more successful, higher-volume drug dealers,who are in turn clients of bigger firms, and so on and so on until infinity. Grim, right? Human, but grim. I owned a digital pharmacy scale. An expensive black safe, which at the peak of my prosperity contained $12,380 in four shoe boxes, the cash organizedin bundles by denomination. (How lame is that!) A gun, although that was a later acquisition. A suspicious supply of Biggie-brand plastic bags. A pager. All the sordid, dead-giveaway equipment.      

I am eighteen years and five days old. I live in a tree-heavy upper-middle-class neighborhood in Washington, D.C., with my father, who makes clay pots. He also teaches classes at our city's semi-renowned art academy, the Cochrane Institute. Classes abouthow to make clay pots. My name is Addison Schacht, if you can believe it: my dead mother's dead father was named Addison. Because I am an unknown quantity, I am unpopular, even now, my last year, in my class at John F. Kennedy Senior High School. How unknown,you ask? I could not, under pain of death, tell you where a single member of my class wants to attend college, that's how little I have to do with them. I have no extracurricular activities beyond the study of Latin and the collection of offensive jokes aboutthe Holocaust. I live on X Street, on the Xth floor, I weigh X pounds. What do you want? An index of my soul?   My dick measurements? I could give them; I'm not ashamed or anything. But would they help you understand? This whole involved and stupefying story has been gnawing away at me, though. Which is why I'm writing it. To like unburden myself. I've wasted enoughtime. And I'm not unintelligent; don't think that. On every practice test I took, my scores were identical to what I ended up getting on the real SAT: 770 verbal and 650 math. This is from three sets of results. How's that for precision? On my battery of AdvancedPlacement tests, I scored three fives and two fours. I've got nothing else. Except for one silver and one gold medal on the National Latin Exam. Latin literature is devoid of most human feeling, but I'm still proud of my medals: my teachers have been a goddamnembarrassment.      

Selling weed did not figure in my list of permanent plans when I started four years ago, right after I arrived at Kennedy. Just a little, at first. But it was easy, and more challenging than my classwork. It also gave me a foothold in the school's ecology,which I wouldn't otherwise have discovered. I didn't think overmuch about it. People wanted it, they came to expect I could provide it, and then I found myself the proprietor of a small but flourishing business. I promised myself that I'd stop when I graduated.Just for practical reasons. And I did manage to stop doing it, even before my target date. This was not out of volition. Circumstance played its usual forceful role, in the form of a classmate of mine named Kevin Broadus.      

Kevin was this quiet, stocky kid, a marching-band geek. I didn't really know him, except to nod at between classes. And because he was one of the handful of black kids in the Gifted and Talented Program, I was just sort of aware of him. At least untilour junior year, when, about five months before the brutal events occurred that got his name in the papers, Kevin did something that I found . . . admirable is maybe the best word. Or not admirable, because it's presumptuous to admire someone you don't speakto on a regular basis. But uncompromising. It happened in February. Ms. Prather, our English teacher last year, was going on and on in this artificial way about what's called "black history." February, as I'm sure you know, is Black History Month, an occasionof much wariness and nervous self-congratulation among the teachers in the Gifted and Talented Program here at Kennedy. We learn, every year, the same tired story, like a long round in a game: the founders were hypocrites, the Three-Fifths Compromise was bad,the Dred Scott decision was bad, Frederick Douglass good, Booker T. Washington bad, Tuskegee Experiment bad, Tuskegee Airmen good, Langston Hughes good, jazz good, and we're all still racists today. Thanks for playing! It's like this compressed version of Americanhistory, one that fails to do justice to all the complex nonsense that people get up to in political life, and also fails completely to convey any real sense of how awful life must have been (and in a lot of ways still is) in America for slaves and their descendants.It's like a gesture. I don't know how else to describe it.      

So: we were talking about Music and Its Relation to African American Literature. And Ms. Prather was in the spitty middle of her oration about how great it was that African American literature was not constrained in the way the other literature of itstime was, how it was filled with a new and vital energy, a rhythmic current. A lot of the kids in my class nodded along, some of them actually convinced. And after she had reached her crescendo, waving her hands and making her voice throb, after she had herlittle like orgasm or whatever, she stopped and looked at Kevin and said, "But let's ask our resident musician. Don't you agree, Mr. Broadus?" I wish I could communicate the hideous empty quiet that followed her remark. Everyone craned around in their woodenchair-desk combo sets to stare at Kevin, who gazed at his hands. The afternoon sun slanted down and blanked out his glasses. And he said, "Not particularly." That's all. Ms. Prather stood with her hands lifted and her mouth open. She looked hurt, wobbly-eyedat Kevin's betrayal. The silence persisted. Then Ms. Prather sighed and said, "Well, it's generally accepted, Kevin." More silence. Kevin spoke again. "Yeah, but if it's accepted, why did you ask me." Someone spluttered a laugh into cupped hands. Ms. Pratherhad literally nothing to say. So she repeated herself.   As though Kevin did not exist. And we continued with our lesson. This is the only clear memory I have of Kevin speaking in class. Again, I don't want to presume and call it admirable. But it demonstrated real brassiness of balls, in my opinion. I wantedto congratulate him, but he lost himself among the sighing after-class crowd before I could. It's lucky, I guess: that would have been a kind of presumption, too.      

Kennedy is a segregated school, I should mention. Not because black kids are less able or whatever, but because--and I'm theorizing here--because my neighborhood and the other neighborhoods that provide it with its white students are filled with the kindof parents who just love black people--in the abstract. And Kennedy is majority black, by a considerable margin. And they (the neighborhood parents, I mean) all originally wanted their kids to go to private school, anyway. So all these ex-hippie history andEnglish teachers at Kennedy like twenty years ago set up this little 90 percent white school inside Kennedy, the Gifted and Talented Program, and they let in six black kids or so every year to balm their consciences, and set up pantomimes like Black HistoryMonth and Diversity Outreach (which is just as horrifyingly inept as its name suggests). Although if they had consciences would they have set up these internal divisions in the first place? But whatever. Kevin stood out because of all these accidents, thesecircumstances. Through no fault of his own he was visible. He played in the marching band, like I said: baritone saxophone. And he worked after school at Second Mate Stubb's, which is a nationwide chain of coffee shops. Their coffee, their whole scheme, isreliable and mediocre, so the artfucky kids at Kennedy mock Stubb's. Which seems unjust. Reliable mediocrity, I've decided, is the most important thing for the continuation of human existence. We can't get by on Romantic disaster. We would die of exhaustion.      

Anyway, it happened at the Stubb's on Wisconsin Avenue, near M Street, where the hump of the avenue dips down toward the soapy-looking grayish water of the Potomac River. Someone came in one night and slaughtered Kevin and the other two people workingthere. One had a memorable name: Turquoise Tull. She was twenty-three. The other was some guy named Brandon Gambuto. The shooter just laid into them: two shots in the manager, Turquoise, one in the other guy, and twelve in Kevin, according to the salivatingarticle. By this "feature writer" (according to his byline) for the Post, Archer B. Sexton. (What kind of a name is that? Its components are interchangeable, and therefore it's nonhuman.) You know the kind of thing I mean: "Kevin Broadus was a model studentat Kennedy High School. Turquoise Tull was a hardworking single mother. Brandon Gambuto was an aspiring musician. All of them died last week in what some are calling the most sensational murders in recent memory." "These brutal killings have stunned a peacefulNorthwest neighborhood." "Lieutenant James Huang, in charge of the task force leading the investigation, offered assurances that the metropolitan police force is doing everything it can. But residents of the Second Precinct, Huang's area of jurisdiction, remainunsettled." Sexton discussed the copious maplike bloodstains, the lack of any robbery, the tribulations of the police. This happened the July before my senior year, this year. We were beaten over the head with the story for the worst, most blinding months ofthe summer, in the cruel heat and wetness for which our city is famous. For a while people were talking about gang retaliation. I mean, that's what I thought at first, gangs or drugs. You had to figure that all the extra bullets in Kevin meant something. Buthe seemed--and I say this, as I said, without having known him well or at all--too passive to be involved in anything that would require retribution. The local reporters droned on and on about it, but they gave up their gang theory after a day or two and thentalked about senseless tragedy.      

Really? Just think about it: you're some boring kid working a boring job, because your parents pressure you to, in a boring neighborhood. The heat and swampiness of summers here are repetitive and soul-numbing. The bored mothers, college students, andantique store owners who patronize that particular Stubb's gaze at you with supercilious anger as they wait for their orders. Your sad-ass manager (who's made a career out of this, which horrifies you) calls you out for errors sometimes. But she also praisesyou, which is in its own way worse, the pledge of some defeating mediocrity she recognizes in you and sees as kin to her own. So this goes on for a month or two, no relief in sight. It's not torture but it's a chafe against the restlessness that you feel now,the sense that you can encompass anything.       And then one night someone comes in--someone who looks, in theory, no different from anyone else--and shoots you. A man of average height and build, wearing dark clothes, so any blood won't show, loose clothes, so the gun remains invisible. Older thanKevin. White, in my mental viewer, although that's statistically improbable in D.C. He walks with a calmness in his eyes. Calling it emptiness would be stupid. He ipso facto has enough inner strength to plan and realize three murders, which is--if I can putit like this--more than most people ever accomplish. His hands refuse to shake. He looks around; there's no one else in the store; he lifts his gaze up to the employees, one by one. The ordinariness of his face is incomprehensible and horrifying, as is hisnormal brown hair, its color borrowed from some actual person I know. As every physical facet of him is borrowed. And then, radiating his normality, he takes out the gun. What if he kills you second? What if the first shot just maims you, knocks you down? Whatif the sun hadn't set? Can you imagine that? Dying on the floor of a Stubb's with the last of a summer sunset in your eyes? At seventeen? Just when you've first tasted autonomy? I mean, I've only been having sex for about two years, and I can tell you withouthesitation: losing that would hurt just as much as losing life itself. Also driving. I'm not a huge fan of it, but it's necessary in my line of work, and other people love driving. And college? The prospect of green quads and unlimited drinking and fucking?Or telling off Ms. Prather, the way Kevin did? That's the sweetness of autonomy.  

Tragedy isn't the word for it, in my opinion. I have no doubt that it crushed his parents--although it's also impossible for me to understand their loss; I can think about it but I have no way to grasp it--but the real loss would be to you. To you! It'syour life! There's something selfish about our idea of tragedy, since it depends on other people watching. I guess it's been that way since ancient times, though, at least according to Mr. Vanderleun, the twelfth-grade English teacher, who talks about tragicirony at least three times a week, and without any apparent awareness of the colossal waste of his own life. Senseless tragedy. Accurate, yeah, but you could describe the majority of human existence as senseless tragedy, or even existence in general, if you'rea true idealist. Kevin's mother never went on the local news, and his father just once. Mr. Broadus, tall, bespectacled, with a slight stoop, was begging for the guy who did it to come forward. Though he must have known there was no chance of this happening.When public television finally got its act together, Capitol Ideas (perhaps the world's most boring program) invited Archer B. Sexton, who is humpy and bald and pomegranate-flushed, onto their taupe set to talk about the case. He was identified as a featurewriter/urban historian, in demure white letters hovering beneath the knot of his crimson tie. He basically repeated the points in his article, with a lot of unibrow wriggles, which look hilarious on a totally bald guy. Like a pinned caterpillar, struggling.  

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Sam Munson’s writing has appeared in n+1, Tablet, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The National, The Daily Beast, Commentary, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Observer, The Utopian, and numerous other publications. His first novel, The November Criminals, is being adapted into a film.

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The November Criminals 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
KenCady More than 1 year ago
It's been over two months now since The November Criminals was published, and yet not a single review here at I always hate to be the first to submit a review lest some one come long later and point out all of the things I missed about the novel. So that is probably what will happen here. But, here goes: The November Criminals is virtually unreadable. After 50 pages I was going to give up, but then it became somewhat interesting. For a while. But the narrator is so self-absorbed that it becomes obnoxious. He will take a small topic and go on for pages about it, thinking, I imagine, that the reader is just fascinated. And maybe some were, but not enough to write up a review. About page 160 I was sure that I had enough, and I do admit to skimming some of his long and tedious blatherings, but I did finish the book. And I am nowhere ahead for doing it. So I await the review that tells me what I missed!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago