Review: Bad Teeth

Novel by Dustin Long
Review by Michael Christian
Issue No. 4 – June 2014

Dustin Long’s second novel, Bad Teeth, establishes early on that Judas, despite his limited likeability, is our main protagonist:

At this point in his life, Judas was one of those vague young men on the verge of no longer being you, now in his midthirties, whose sense of purpose in life had been too long dependent on early promise, and who was only just beginning to realize that this promise had been rescinded.

Like Judas, the novel itself hints early on at an ambitious storyline involving a mysterious revolutionary and an even more mysterious revolutionary organization, known as SOFA. We’re teased further by the mystery of the reclusive novelist Jigme Drolma, the so-called Tibetian David Foster Wallace whose latest book Judas hopes to translate for a hip Brooklyn-based indie literary concern.

But Long appears happy to misdirect. The ambitious plot turns out to be a kind of Big Lebowski-esque non-story. Long lays the groundwork for a Big Novel, featuring the expected  cast of well-drawn characters floating through differing locales (Brooklyn, Berkley, Bloomington, and Bakersfield) each with their own side quest and a few romantic subplots to boot. Oddly, most of these goals and potential connections remain unfulfilled or unresolved at the novel’s end. Jigme Drolma doesn’t play his pre-assigned role, spouting decidedly un-David Foster Wallacian sentiments when he finally appears in the text:

The great myth is that novels increase our capacity for empathy as we pause and reflect on the distance between our own lives and lives of those we read about…But no, the truth is that literature—all of the hours that we spend reading or writing alone—isolates us.

Judas never even fulfills his plot-triggering desire to translate Drolma’s new book. There is no climatic anti-establishment apocalypse at the hands of SOFA, an organization whose acronym is never definitively defined. We’re told “SOFA is about changing the entire fabric of ideaspace.” Things remain enigmatic throughout.

As the novel itself seems to be unconcerned with plotty endgames, so too does its female lead, Selah:

She had moved well past the stage of wondering what she was doing here, or why she was with Mark in general, and she realized now that these weren’t so much questions with rational answers as they were koans: standing there in the hotel room, in his absence, she slapped herself on the forehead, and in that moment she was enlightened.

Selah’s “enlightenment” here is merely a decision to leave Mark, but the idea of a koan seems more salient to Long’s concerns. A koan (I had to look it up too) is a paradoxical tale or riddle used in Zen Buddhism to illustrate the shortcomings of logical reasoning and, hopefully, prompt enlightenment.

Before reaching such enlightenment, Long’s characters must suffer at the hands of various contemporary anxieties. These characters, most of whom are habitually solipsistic, appear ill equipped to deal with their present circumstances. Adam obliterates his present with alcohol. Selah uses weed. Judas wanders the country restlessly. Most characters are aspiring artists or underemployed. The specters of SOFA, social unrest, and (sometimes too glibly) 9/11 hover over the proceedings. “Thinking too much about the future,” Judas considers, “had never made him any happier.”

Judas, as stated earlier, has likeability issues. He makes fun of the narrator’s bad teeth. He pursues virtually every woman he encounters, especially the women his friends—most of whom are providing free housing for the vaguely employed Judas—secretly or overtly desire. He lacks empathy. But later, toward the end of the novel when Judas is hit in the face with a bowling trophy by two men who mistakenly believe Judas to be the man who stole their big box of drugs (it’s a bit of a non sequitur even in context), something changes. Like Selah’s slap to the forehead, a kind of understanding washes over Judas as he falls to the grass:

Judas knew none of this, and in recognizing the extent of his ignorance, he achieved a point of connection with the outside world that he had heretofore been lacking: an instinctive awareness that these people of whom he had previously known nothing may actually have something to do with him—beyond, even, the tangible something that they had to do with the moment in which he found himself…it was the beginning of a broadening of perception that might eventually lead to such a wider awareness.

In unlocking a connection to the world outside of his own mind, Judas finds more clarity and stillness inside his head as well. Through intense dental discomfort, Judas realizes that meaning is “to be found in the present moment rather than in this fictive emblem of future greatness that he had been hoping to harness to himself.”

So here is a novel in which a prominent and revered novelist turns out to be a plagiarist who believes fiction lacks the power to bestow empathy upon readers. It’s a book with a main character so lacking in empathy that he must be beaten by strangers to realize he’s not alone in the world. Obsessing over the uncertain future in Long’s universe results in only discomfort and isolation. But to focus on the present, the aphorisms on the page, the contemplative footnotes, the philosophical digressions and believable characters, is to find a peaceful moment with an ambitious work of fiction.

Bad Teeth
Dustin Long

New Harvest
320 pages, $25.00

Michael ChristianMichael Christian’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as PANK, Bull: Men’s Fiction and the Cafe Review, among others. He currently lives in Austin, TX.

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