For thirty-year-old Gerald Brinkman, life in Atlanta in the year 1996–the summer of the Olympics–doesn’t feel half bad. Writing reviews of basement rock bands for an alternative paper, Gerald has carefully avoided getting a real job, while watching his old friends from grad school start careers, marriages, and affairs–often with each other. But in this one life-changing summer, something is about to happen that will shake Gerald out of his complacency forever.
Gerald’s father, his brilliant, vagabond, and utterly unhelpful father, wants to come and stay with him “for a while.” Ever since childhood, Gerald has tried to bury his relationship with his father under a life of carefully crafted wrong turns. And now Paul Brinkman has shown up with trash bags full of belongings, a medical crisis, and an unbearable confession to make. But Gerald knows one thing for sure: He doesn’t want to hear it. Try as he might to stop it, the future is bearing down on him. A job is being dangled in New York. A secret from his past is waiting to be revealed. An ex-girlfriend is suddenly sending mixed signals. And in one moment in one summer in the city of Atlanta, everything is about to change forever. When it does, Gerald is going to have a whole new vision of who he is, who his father and friends are, and what he must do next.
An exhilarating and touching novel about family and flirtations, growing up and letting go, Alternative Atlanta brilliantly captures a time of life when everything seems possible and impossible at the same time. It is a work of dazzling storytelling from a writer of immense gifts.
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Stepping outside the church, Gerald Brinkman shakes loose a cigarette and looks to the sky in search of his father’s incoming plane. His father: that duffel bag of dread. In a dim sort of way he even imagines that the ghostly crucifix he’s looking for is his dad, a onetime Methodist minister now returned to heaven and trailing clouds of glory. But the sky is silent and blank, not a single cloud in sight.
With mounting impatience he snaps off the lighter’s child-protective switch. Behind him in the church, ushers and elderly matrons shuffle and whisper amid pews and brochures and flower arrangements. Before him, the late-Saturday shopping traffic of summertime Atlanta sweeps noisily along Peachtree. The Olympic Games start Friday, so chaos is the rule. Gerald’s father, meanwhile, is chaos personified. For the last six weeks he’s been calling and e-mailing at an alarming rate, sometimes as often as four times a day. The e-mails offer little more than detailed descriptions of the man’s numbing everyday ennui, while the phone calls consist entirely of monologue recitations from The American Spectator or The Village Voice. One morning three weeks ago, while listening to his father read aloud a George Will piece from Newsweek about the recent epidemic of black church burnings, Gerald coughed loudly and asked his father if he’d maybe like to come for a visit or something. His father hung up immediately and called back ten minutes later with plane reservations. Gerald now tries to picture his father stepping off the plane and into the United Nations sprawl of the Hartsfield International Airport. The image snags at his heart.
He shakes the lighter in frustration, readjusts the unlit cigarette between his lips, cups his hands against the slight breeze. The lighter catches this time. Before he can bring the darting flame to the end of his cigarette an elderly woman in a shimmering red polyester dress pokes her head out the door and whispers, “It’s time!” The flame dies. Vaguely relieved, he tosses the unlit cigarette into the bushes and steps inside.
An usher directs him to a seat near the back, an empty pew. Gerald doesn’t know the guy: some friend of the groom, whom Gerald also barely knows. The usher’s barrel chest strains at his starched tuxedo shirt, his plump cheeks made even plumper by a tidy, bisecting goatee.
No sooner does Gerald sit down than the processional music commences. The congregation rustles, settles, squirms. First up come the bridesmaids, all of them uniformed in the same slate- gray sleeveless dress that hovers just an inch above the ground and features, as its one and only concession to female anatomy, a lateral crease just beneath the breasts. The girls sashay down the aisle in waltz time with a cluster of flowers held before them like muffs. Each one as she passes wears a self-conscious Mona Lisa smile.
As the third bridesmaid enters Gerald’s scope of vision he strains to keep his head forward, though his neck itches with an impulse to turn. This is the bridesmaid he’s been waiting for: Sasha Mantrivadi, a simian-eyed Bombay-born drug rep and wife of the bride’s college boyfriend. Here amid the church’s murky watercolor light her skin looks as translucent as cognac; faint blue highlights glow beneath the surface of her glossy black hair. For the last two years Gerald’s harbored an innocent but also sort of pathetic crush on Sasha, partly in response to her lavish exoticism—this despite the rather bland fact that she was raised in Ohio—and mostly due to her regal unattainability. She acknowledges his gaze, however quickly, her eyes brushing his and her mouth tugged into the faintest possible smile of recognition, but she quickly jerks her eyes forward and continues down the aisle, bathed in Vivaldi and the kaleidoscopic play of colored light filtering through the stained-glass windows.
After the remaining two bridesmaids make their way to the front, the Vivaldi all at once comes to a halt. Silence echoes through the sanctuary. Coughs, shuffling feet. An organ blast jolts the congregation to attention. Like a battalion of soldiers in parade, everyone in the pews simultaneously stands and pivots to the back of the church. At the threshold of the entranceway, flanked on both sides by a fulsome funereal arrangement of flowers, stands Gerald’s former girlfriend Nora Reynolds, one hand draped on the cocked arm of her silver-haired daddy and the other pinching the smooth skirt of her wedding gown. The organ blasts continue, and even Gerald’s cynical heart registers a stir. Something grand is about to happen: the bride has arrived. And here she comes, right down the aisle, walking in time to her very own theme song, by Wagner, of all people. And she does look spectacular, even he has to admit. Her wispy blond hair, topped by a tiara of pearls, hangs loose along her tan shoulders, while her face, with its narrow tapering chin and high cheekbones lightly dusted with honey-brown freckles, now radiates a screen star’s enameled glamour. It dawns on him that, until this moment, he’s never seen her in full makeup. Most surprising of all, the neckline of her tastefully simple wedding dress dips just low enough to reveal the center crease of her breasts, which look more abundant than usual. Nora in a Wonderbra? A wonder in itself.
Sitting down with the rest of the congregation, Gerald tries to recall how many of these things he’s attended in the last couple of years. Five? Seven? He’s lost count. And in each one, this procession, this daughter-and-dad show. Also the dress. The beautiful wedding dress. For Nora does look beautiful, as beautiful as she’s ever looked. She just doesn’t look like Nora. In many respects the girl now standing at the altar looks more like a near approximation of Nora than Nora herself, like some slightly more beautiful and less convincing doppelgänger of his beloved old friend. Back when they were both still graduate students and self-absorbed lovers, Nora tended to bury her body beneath floppy thrift-store outfits composed of soccer jerseys and cut-off army fatigues, thereby making her beauty both a challenge and a source of tension, less an advertisement than a tantalizing possibility that, like the trailer for a movie you haven’t seen yet, promised an originality that might dissolve under the penetrating gaze of a full viewing. But now, as she stands at the front of the church saturated in everyone’s objectifying gaze, she seems to have tossed aside all that confrontational aggression. But this has always been Nora’s way. Even amid the charged political atmosphere of the graduate department she proudly proclaimed how much she liked being a girl, giving that last word the same degree of unironic emphasis gay men give to queer. And she’s never been shy about wanting to get married—as Gerald grimly remembers from their own fractious relationship.
At the altar Mr. Reynolds withdraws his arm and steps aside, thereby giving her away, as the saying goes. Nora moves closer to the groom, a computer technician named Brent Einhorn whom Nora started dating about a year ago. Brent has a sensitive guy’s shaved head, sensitive-guy wire-frame John Lennon glasses, and a stubble-goatee. Here in the church, amid the incessant play of candy-colored light streaming through the stained glass, Brent’s globular head juts from the cardboard collar of his tuxedo shirt like a finial on a staircase banister. An earnest, soft-spoken, likable enough guy, Brent is something of a techno-hippie, with all the attendant Pacific Northwest idealism, so Gerald can sort of see the appeal, even if he can’t quite square how that appeal applies to a sharp-tongued cynic like Nora. But that’s love. Or whatever it is she feels for him.
Up front, the youngish, smiling minister—more a guidance counselor than a man of the cloth, from the looks of him, his mere presence here one of the many concessions Nora made to her parents, bourgeois believers the both of them—reads a bit from I Corinthians 7 (that old chestnut) before deftly moving on to a more secular sermonette on “relationships” generally understood, which is more in keeping with Nora’s style. Gerald is somewhat surprised this thing is taking place in a church at all; it’s almost as surprising as the speed with which Nora and Brent decided to get hitched. Had Nora given the thing more thought, she probably would have fought for something less traditional, something more along the lines of a civil union, with music by Joni Mitchell. But she was ready, she’d told Gerald, and doing it this way was just easier, all things considered, particularly since Brent’s parents attended this church, and there was a surprise July opening in the bargain.
Nevertheless, Gerald can’t help but recall that sunny spring day four months ago when an exuberant Nora appeared at his little apartment all abristle with the news that she and Brent were kaput. “It just wasn’t right,” she told him, sitting Indian-style on his crappy thrift-store couch and nursing both a beer and a cigarette, the latter forbidden her the last seven months by health-obsessed Brent. “I just feel so”—she glanced around at his cluttered apartment with a glowing expression equal parts nostalgia and appreciation, as if she’d just returned home from a prolonged visit to a strange land—“free. And alive. Like I’m finally myself again.” She beamed at him as she settled back along the couch’s armrest, the cigarette burning unsmoked in her fist (she never was much of a smoker, anyway).
At the time Gerald hadn’t known quite what to make of this sudden development. When she’d first met Brent late the previ- ous summer, she was absolutely gaga for him, which wasn’t altogether out of character. Nora loved being in love, as Gerald knew very well. She threw herself into relationships as enthusiastically as a kid executes cannonballs off a high dive. What Gerald had principally felt when he first heard about Brent was a vague sort of relief. If Nora was attached, then he was off the hook. Conversely, when she turned up free again, Gerald panicked. “I’m sure it will all work out,” he told her, regretting the words even as they came out of his mouth. “You guys are so good together.” Nora’s sunny expression instantly turned February gray: she stared at him for a chilling moment or two, then put out her forgotten cigarette and left his apartment. When he contacted her a week later, she told him, “You were right: we’re back together. Just a bit of cold feet, I guess.” She was engaged within a fortnight.
Sitting here in the back of the church with one arm draped along the back of the pew, Gerald registers a sharp pang in his chest at the memory of all that. To clear his head, he thinks briefly about his father, about the one-in-two divorce statistic, about the bag of dope he has back home in his apartment, and instantly feels depressed again. Now that Nora is officially hitched—or nearly so: she’s just turned to Brent, and Brent has turned to her—Gerald is officially all alone in the Singlehood, a sloppy rent-cheap section of life littered with unused condoms and empty fast-food cartons and haunted everywhere by the hollow promise of pure possibility. He’s everyone else’s fun-loving bachelor pal, a long-haired myopic rock critic with a one-bedroom apartment, a library’s worth of compact discs and used paperback books, an overweight but friendly enough cat of indeterminate breed named Lester Bangs, a manageable-for-now smoking addiction perhaps augmented by commensurate marijuana and alcohol addictions (churches still inspire in him such brutal honesty), and a widowed father who, in his twenties, sustained a monthly back-and-forth letter-writing correspondence with Harvard theologian Paul Tillich and who now eats cold soup from the can and scours the virtual space of the Internet for information about paranormal activity and millennial eschatology writ large—a father, in other words, who, at this very moment, is probably sitting contentedly in one of the many clean plastic cars of the Atlanta MARTA mass-transit system, his sneakers untied and a placid Buddha’s smile on his face, while the train he is sitting in hurtles not toward but away from said one-bedroom apartment. How did Gerald end up here? How did this happen? Somewhere along the road of adolescent development he must have missed a crucial exit, the one marked Adulthood or Responsibility or something. What could he have been doing when he passed it? Changing a tape, more than likely. That’s probably it.
Up front, the minister commands Brent to kiss the bride.
Reading Group Guide
Soon after the publication of Trouble with Girls, Marshall Boswell's story collection, The Washington Post hailed him as "a fine, expressive writer . . . with a light hand and a virtuoso touch." With Alternative Atlanta, Boswell makes his debut as a novelist, bringing those virtuoso talents to a wholly unforgettable cast of characters facing unique dilemmas that will captivate you at every turn.
Alternative Atlanta is the story of thirty-year-old Gerald Brinkman and the summer that transformed his life. It's 1996, and Gerald is living in Atlanta amid the crush of tourists in town for the Olympics. Writing reviews of basement rock bands for an alternative paper, Gerald has managed to avoid getting a real job while most of his friends are immersed in far more adult situations–especially marriage and family, with inklings of affairs. But just when Gerald thinks he has mastered the finer points of bachelorhood, his vagabond father shows up. Paul Brinkman has startling news for his son, including the fact that he has just sold the family home and now has nowhere permanent to stay. As Gerald copes with a man whose eccentricities are impossible to comprehend, he also learns more about his family history than he was ready for, all the while taking on a new role that is completely out of character for him. In the midst of having to care for his father, one of Gerald's ex-girlfriends is suddenly sending mixed signals, everyone seems to have a secret for him to keep, and a job prospect in New York is forcing him to discern what he wants from a career.
An exhilarating boys-to-men tale, Alternative Atlanta captures the struggles of adulthood through wry and refreshingly original storytelling. The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Marshall Boswell’s Alternative Atlanta. We hope they will enrich your experience of this endearing novel.