The Tragic Age

The Tragic Age

by Stephen Metcalfe


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This is the story of Billy Kinsey, heir to a lottery fortune, part genius, part philosopher and social critic, full time insomniac and closeted rock drummer. Billy has decided that the best way to deal with an absurd world is to stay away from it. Do not volunteer. Do not join in. Billy will be the first to tell you it doesn't always work- not when your twin sister, Dorie, has died, not when your unhappy parents are at war with one another, not when frazzled soccer moms in two ton SUVs are more dangerous than atom bombs, and not when your guidance counselor keeps asking why you haven't applied to college.

Billy's life changes when two people enter his life. Twom Twomey is a charismatic renegade who believes that truly living means going a little outlaw. Twom and Billy become one another's mutual benefactor and friend. At the same time, Billy is reintroduced to Gretchen Quinn, an old and adored friend of Dorie's. It is Gretchen who suggests to Billy that the world can be transformed by creative acts of the soul.

With Twom, Billy visits the dark side. And with Gretchen, Billy experiences possibilities.

Billy knows that one path is leading him toward disaster and the other toward happiness. The problem is-Billy doesn't trust happiness. It's the age he's at. The tragic age.

Stephen Metcalfe's brilliant, debut coming-of-age novel, The Tragic Age, will teach you to learn to love, trust and truly be alive in an absurd world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250054418
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/03/2015
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)
Lexile: HL770L (what's this?)
Age Range: 14 - 17 Years

About the Author

STEPHEN METCALFE wrote the production drafts for Pretty Woman, Dangerous Minds and Mr. Holland's Opus, among others. His stage plays have been produced in New York and at theaters throughout the US, Europe and Japan. He is an Associate Artist at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and has been an adjunct professor in dramatic writing at University of California at San Diego, University of San Diego and San Diego State University. The Tragic Age is his debut novel.

Read an Excerpt

The Tragic Age

A Novel

By Stephen Metcalfe

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Stephen Metcalfe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5735-3


Pick a subject. Grab a word or headline or rumor. Read about it. Google it. Wiki it. Search and surf it. Stuff it. One site leads to another and then another. A new subject or word or phrase grabs your attention. It takes the place of the first one and you follow that trail, moving on and on, subject to subject, site to site, skimming the surface, never really digging deep, adhesive picking up lint, on and on until you've forgotten what it is that got you started in the first place.

In real time. In real life.

In Antarctica, an iceberg larger than the entire city of Chicago breaks off a glacier and begins floating happily across the southern ocean toward Argentina. Unimpressed, suicide bombers in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and Mozambique blow themselves up, killing both neighbors and complete strangers.


The market crashes. Reforms. Crashes.

And so on.

An Indian billionaire builds a twenty-seven-story house overlooking the slums of Mumbai and then abandons it because it has bad karma. A neuroscientist shoots seventy people in a Memphis auditorium. Another neuroscientist tells us you can't blame him, it's just the way his brain is wired.

There are Asian carp in the Great Lakes and walking snakes in Florida. In Australia they're losing the Great Barrier Reef to horned starfish while in France bus drivers abandon their vehicles and go on strike, shutting down public roadways, because their uniform pants are too tight.

In Switzerland, they're crashing subatomic particles into each other at the speed of light, searching for the glue of life. Why not? It's better than predicting global disaster, designing new varieties of pink slime, and replicating human proteins in cloned goats.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Enough of real life. Take a break. Turn on the television. Television is pretend life. And with basic cable you can watch it all day long. Desperate Housewives. American Idol. An idol is a cult image, venerating the spirit it represents. The cult that is American venerates desperate singing morons. Shooting cops. Forensic cops. Female cops. Wisecracking cops. Singing cops. Cops wearing sunglasses. Emergency room doctors. Student doctors. Drug-addicted doctors. Plastic surgeons on Viagra and steroids. Meth dealers. Zombies. Vampires.

Reality shows. What is reality? Is it tanned Italians in a Jersey beach house? Barbie dolls married to has-been rock stars? Housewives of Miami, New Jersey, Beverly Hills, Greater Pomona, and Baton Rouge? Or is it Las Vegas pool parties, celebrities in rehab, and politicians on Meet the Press?

We are all avid spectators at a car crash.

I should know. My name is Billy Kinsey. I'm seventeen years old. I watch a lot of TV. Often all night long.

I live in a nice house. It has five bedrooms, eight bathrooms, and a four-car garage. More than enough room for three people. We have a nice view. When I come out to stand in our backyard in the morning, I can see the Pacific Ocean in the distance. The Coronado Islands are somewhere to the south. Hawaii is two thousand miles to the west. Hollywood is ... we won't mention that again.

Ours is the kind of neighborhood where men and women in expensive workout clothes walk expensive designer dogs that don't shed. People know the dogs' names but they don't know each other's. The dogs take dumps on random lawns and sniff each other's assholes. This is a dog's way of introducing himself to his friends. It's how they tell each other how they're feeling, what they've eaten lately, and whether they're dangerous, pregnant, or just plain crazy. The nose does not lie, and when you get right down to it, maybe we should all be sniffing each other's butts as well.

This is also the kind of neighborhood where on weekends a lot of people who should know better put on uncomfortable helmets, skintight Lycra emblazoned with European logos, and go riding around on titanium bicycles that cost as much as small cars. Sometimes they come to a stop and can't release their shoes from the pedals and fall over. They lie there groaning, still attached to their bikes.

For those who don't bike, there's a pleasant little Ferrari dealership in the village. There's also a Maserati dealership, a Rolls-Bentley dealership, a Ferrari dealership, and a Lamborghini dealership. There's a Tesla dealership. A Tesla is an energy-saving, ecofriendly, fully electric sports automobile. In this case, one that has a carbon-fiber body, goes from zero to sixty in 3.7 seconds, and costs over a hundred and ten thousand dollars. Talk about friendly.

We used to have a Segway dealership selling two-wheeled, self-balancing, personal transports but then the British billionaire owner of the company inadvertently drove his off a cliff and died. Sales inexplicably declined.

It wasn't always palm trees, luxury cars, and the blue Pacific. Till the age of four, I lived in Tulare, California, in the San Joaquin Valley. The crop of choice is hay. People enjoy beer, methamphetamine, and looking for bodies in irrigation canals. Tourists come for the retail outlets.

I've seen photos in old family photo albums. Our house was small. Dad — Gordon —worked construction. Mom — Linda — was a housewife. There's one photo that shows me as a toddler playing in a pile of bagged mulch. In the foreground, Mom is planting nonindigenous flowers that will inevitably die. She looks happy doing it. Her hair is brown and messy. She's on her knees and you can tell she's having fun getting her hands dirty.

On March 18, 1999, Dad won 37 million dollars in the California lottery and everything changed.


Seven months later, a stranger in a bowling alley told Dad that if he was smart, he'd invest in a company called Qualcomm. This was the equivalent of a guy in a bowling shirt giving Jack the magic beans to the golden goose for free. Qualcomm is now the biggest producer of semiconductors and cell phone technology in the world.

Inevitable events.

A year after that, worn out by friends with business ideas, acquaintances asking for loans, and complete strangers showing up on the doorstep begging for handouts, Mom and Dad moved south to the fourteenth-wealthiest community in the United States, a place where begging is discouraged, loans are kept private, and where, even though they shared similar physical characteristics with the residents, they were as different as Tagalog-speaking hermaphrodites from Mars.

Providence. Zahmahkibo from the Book of Vonnegut and Bokonon.

We've acclimated.

Mom's name is still Linda but Linda is now a lean, tawny blonde with a tan and perfect nails. Mom is now part of this group of women who call each other all day long, making and breaking appointments and talking behind each other's backs.

"Well, I think it's silly," Mom will say. "She's spending more on the invitations than she is on the — It's supposed to be for charity, right?"

Stuff like that. They also play tennis, meet for lunch, do yoga, and shop.

"Hold on, Jen."

Mom always interrupts her phone call when she sees me, like she wants me to know that I'm every bit as important as whoever it is she's talking to.

"Hey, honey," she'll say. "Sleep well?"

"Great," I'll say. "Like a baby."

"I thought I heard you up."

"Not me."

"Where are you going?"

"Siberia by bus."

"Take your cell phone!"

And then she's back into her conversation, not even realizing that I wouldn't own a cell phone if you paid me.


Cell phones emit radiofrequency energy, a form of nonionizing electromagnetic radiation. Why take the risk?


When you answer the phone there's usually someone on the other end who wants to talk. Why take the risk?

She tries, Mom. She really does. It's her nature to. But for Dad — Gordon — it's officially too late. It'll be a Sunday afternoon and we'll be in the garage next to the Range Rover, the Jaguar XJ Supersport, and the customized Ford F-150 pickup that Dad likes to drive because it reminds him of his "roots." Dad will have recently gotten back from riding his titanium bike, and after complaining about all the cars that don't stop for downed riders, he'll have been going on about his impoverished youth for at least ten minutes now, all because, on some nostalgic whim, he's bought a push lawn mower.

"Give me one good reason," he'll say, "why I should pay some Mexican twelve bucks an hour to mow the lawn when I have a kid who does nothing but sit around on his ass all day doing nothing!"

Actually I don't just sit around on my ass all day doing nothing. I sit around on my ass and read. I like knowing things. Just don't make me talk about them.

Dad doesn't read or know anything and all he does is talk.

"When I was your age, I worked, kiddo. I didn't have the advantages you have!"

On and on he'll go. At some point along the line, Dad — Gordon — decided he'd earned everything we have, and after a successful career in the construction biz followed by a brilliant investment career, he decided it was time to smell the roses, watch the kids grow, and coach a little baseball.

Point of reference.

Baseball must be the most beef-witted game ever invented.

I'm, like, eight, and Dad has made me join Little League. And they have me in this stupid uniform which comes complete with what Aldous Huxley in his dystopian novel Brave New World referred to as a "prole hat." Prole, short for "proletariat." Meaning moron. Anyway, because I'm such a reluctant ball player, they've stuck me in right field and I'm standing there with this big, stiff, brand-new, expensive glove that Dad has bought me and all I can think about is when I'll finally get to go home. And then, wouldn't you know it, some dumb, fat kid actually hits the ball and it bounces through the infield and comes right toward me. And I'm not remotely paying any kind of attention, and even if I were I wouldn't be interested, and so it goes right past me. And all my so-called teammates are screaming and their parents are screaming and Dad, who, yes, is "coaching a little baseball" and who looks even more ridiculous in his baseball uniform than I do, is screaming too.

"Billy, what's the matter with you! Goddammit, Billy! Get the goddamn ball!"

The only sane thing to do is ignore them all and so that's what I do. I just stand there, watching the dumb, fat kid run around the bases.

And now I'm seventeen and in the garage and nothing's really changed. Dad's still yelling.

"Good Christ Almighty, Billy, are you listening to me? Are you paying attention? Have you heard one goddamn word I've said?"

"Thirty," I'll say.


"To mow the lawn. I want thirty dollars an hour. With a three-hour minimum."

This is called capitalism.

Dad will snort and make a face that says "You're so such an idiot, you're almost funny." He makes this face with Mom — Linda, his wife, my mother — a lot.

This is called derision.

"Anything else, your majesty?"

I stare at the lawn mower. The hand lawn mower that he — Gordon — wouldn't cut his toenails with.

A couple of hours later, I'll be in our backyard, which is lush and green and beautiful, and I'll be riding around on a brand-new tractor mower, the one we've traded the hand mower in for. Dad's the kind of guy who will upgrade anything mechanical at a moment's notice and call it a good investment. And maybe it's because the thought of this annoys me or maybe it's because it really wouldn't be a bad thing for me to push a mower, but I'll begin driving in this random, haphazard path across the lawn, leaving crazed swathes of uncut grass behind me.

"Billy, what the hell's the matter with you! Goddammit! Billy!"

I hate money. People who make nothing but money, make nothing.


It's money that pays for the drum room.


The drum room.

The drum room is on the lower level of the house. You might call this level the basement if a basement had inlaid wood floors, lath and plaster walls, and crown moldings. Dad had the drum room professionally soundproofed because not only was the noise driving him crazy, he was convinced it was stirring up the sediment in the cases of vintage Bordeaux that he had impulsively bought to put into the walk-in, climate-controlled wine cellar that came with the house.

My set is a Pearl Masterworks series. Black pearl. Double bass drums, a twelve-inch Tama Warlord Titan snare, four rack toms, and two floor toms, all tuned at two intervals apart. The set has six Zildjian cymbals; two rock rides, two custom crash, and a high hat.

My sound system is a Lyngdorf TDAI2200 Integrated Amp and Onkyo CS5VL SACD/CD player that plugs into a Pioneer S4EX speaker system.

Drum karaoke.

The very first concert was probably people beating logs by the fire. The rhythms were the patterns that made up their natural world — wind, rain, stampeding hooves — and through these patterns, they experienced ecstasy.

What are my patterns?

Speed metal. Thrash. Ska punk. Progressive rock. Anything or anybody that makes me work. Neil Peart. Mike Portnoy. Shannon Leto of Thirty Seconds to Mars. Danny Carey of Tool. Stewart Copeland of The Police for simple precision. But my favorite drummer of all time is Avenged Sevenfold's Jimmy Sullivan aka the Reverend Tholomew Plague aka the Rev. Dead of acute drug and alcohol intoxication at the age of twenty-eight.

Better to drum yourself to death.

The soundproof room is small and insular and hot and it doesn't take long before I'll be dripping with sweat. A lot of times I strip down to my underwear or take my clothes off completely. My hands and bare feet blister and bleed and the blood and the sweat spot the drum heads. Drumming is the closest thing I know to mindlessness.

I would never ever play for people.


"Billy! Billy, hi!"

This is the Sunday morning that as I sit on the beach wall reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau, who I'm finding to be a pretentious, pedantic, sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, sheep-brained stiff, the tall, slim girl with the long, light red hair and the green eyes calls out to me. She's up on the road above the seawall. She's in running shorts and sports bra and has obviously been jogging and now she's stopped. She waves, hopping in place, the way runners do while waiting to pass out or for a traffic light to change.

My hand has gone up to cover the right side of my face, the way it always does when I'm startled or surprised. A port-wine hemangioma is a reddish to purple birthmark caused by dilated capillaries in the skin. Mine starts just to the right of my eye and spreads like a stain down and across most of my cheek.

The girl with the long, light red hair and the green eyes points at herself.

"Gretchen! Gretchen Quinn! We're back!"


Shock is a response in the body's sympathetic nervous system. The heart jumps. Breath catches. Blood vessels in the brain contract, throwing off sparks.

The red-haired girl smiles again. She waves at me again. "See you at school!" And then she's off again, running. She has a beautiful, long stride.

I lower my hand. The side of my face pulses and feels hot. I feel as if I'd like a pond to run away to.

I hate it when people expect things of you. I just hate it.


"All hope abandon, ye who enter in!"

Dante Alighieri wrote The Divine Comedy in 1308. The most famous part describes the poet's journey through the nine circles of hell. He got it wrong.

Hell is high school.

High School High is a public school. Originally Mom and Dad wanted me to go to this big-deal private high school that cost about forty grand a year and where the students wear uniforms but I refused. I'd already gone to a big-deal private middle school that cost about fifty grand a year and I'd absolutely hated it. Being surrounded by oblivious, hormone-crazed nitwits is bad enough. Being surrounded by oblivious, hormone-crazed nitwits in identical blazers, chinos, and plaid skirts had made me want to climb an electrical tower and cauterize myself.

Still, we have a lot of well-to-do, self-entitled kids at good ol' High School High, and the ones that aren't, the ones that are mostly bused in and ignored, the social mutants, the Mexicans, and the black kids who have been recruited to play football and basketball, wish they were.

Because I wouldn't get a driver's license if they were giving them away, I ride a skateboard to school. I consider it nothing more than an acceptable means of transportation. If you ever see me hanging around a parking lot doing ollies, for God's sake, or attempting to destroy my testicles by sliding down a banister with the board sideways, please shoot me.

I will confess to the occasional game of chicken.

It's like this. At the top of a decent hill you wait until a car is coming up from the bottom. You take a moment to consider the fact that the wheel is a circular device capable of rotating on its axis. It's one of man's oldest and most important inventions. You push off, aiming down the middle of the approaching car's lane. You do a little side-to-side to establish a rhythm. The car is getting closer now and usually the driver is leaning on the horn. You go into a crouch to gain speed. The car swerves. You swerve with it. It starts to turn. Too late. You go into the grille. You hurtle forward into the windshield, which crumples with the force of your body. You're aware of the driver screaming as you're thrown up and over the roof and then you're airborne, aware of the street flying beneath you, aware of how rough it is and how much it's going to hurt your already badly broken bones when you land.


Excerpted from The Tragic Age by Stephen Metcalfe. Copyright © 2015 Stephen Metcalfe. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Tragic Age 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
MorrisMorgan More than 1 year ago
“The Tragic Age” is the type of novel I adore, but yet find extremely difficult to find one that is well-written.  It is, above all else, an excellent study in existentialism for the current high school generation, not to mention the rest of us. Billy is a narrator with an excellent voice.  His observations are disturbing, disturbed, witty, intelligent, and downright funny.  Funny, that is, until you actually think about them too hard.  Then they become disturbing and/or disturbed.  The author managed to make him both a very self-aware narrator and a very unreliable narrator.  That is a true mark of talent. Nothing about the plot is predictable, yet at the end the conclusion seems inevitable.  It is definitely a novel that needs a second read to fully appreciate all that it has to offer.  I can honestly say it will be something I analyze for quite some time. Also, I died a little bit inside when the epitome of old was revealed to be forty. Recommended for the older  young adult crow and those who like existentialist literature.   “The Tragic Age” is not for younger readers, as it is dark and adult in nature, This review is based upon a complimentary copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.