Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A quirky examination: What do struggling artists want, and where are they going?
Dave J. Andrae’s debut novel, The Friends of Allan Renner, is a surprising, offbeat everyman adventure. Renner, the main character, is a quiet, unassuming man who is approaching his 40th birthday in the mid-2010s. He has undemanding freelance work and no one to worry about except his parents, in whose Florida house he is living, and their new puppy.
Renner keeps in touch with friends across the United States, and it is their eclectic, existential conversations that form the backbone of the novel. As the book smartly bursts conventions of fiction, it keeps the reader guessing what sort of conundrum or escapade might happen next and what might be a meaningful or enjoyable takeaway.
Renner’s friends are all independent thinkers who make their own meaning in life. Akhil, a high school guidance counselor interested in astrophysics, ruminates with him about whether the dinosaurs “could have gone on ruling the planet indefinitely and maybe evolved into something more complex.” Yet it’s only because humans developed exactly as we did that we can reflect on the situation and “size up the apparent unlikelihood of it all,” Renner replies.
With Sadie, who once sang lead vocals for an LA-based rock band, and with Fred, a gifted independent filmmaker, he discusses the meaning of art. He observes a student actor attempt to deliver one of Fred’s character monologues, a script full of accusations like “your petty distress is an insult to people with real problems.” Later enters Carmen with whom he has a torrid, explicitly described affair. The Renner family’s dog—a typical attention-seeking, food-motivated, smelly pooch—is decked out in cute sweaters and doted on.
As the film student’s audition points out, the meaning of a story is profoundly affected by the actor who interprets it. Indirectly, the reader of The Friends of Allan Renner is prompted to consider that these fictional events could have been told in various emotive voices for different purposes. It so happens that Andrae, the novelist, animates this story with a light, absurdist touch and wry detachment.
While there isn’t a conventional conflict that propels the story as a whole, the characters engage in energetic antics, keeping the reader on their toes and always surprised by what happens next. Moreover, the book is rich in philosophical topics about why humans are here on Earth and what kind of art we will choose to make. Readers to whom that appeals will take great interest in the characters’ informal but revealing conversations.
Perspective is ultimately provided by Xynnulu, one of the aliens who abduct Renner and his dog and bring them light-years away from Earth. These aliens, while intelligent, cannot produce music and art of their own, and they are enchanted by everything humans have crafted, right down to “a mass-produced VHS tape of Mrs. Doubtfire.”
Allan Renner is a character we could easily imagine choosing to self-isolate in his parents’ house and fall victim to ennui, but he doesn’t do that. His social connections and his perpetual curiosity in art and the meaning of life give him, though somewhat accidentally, a fascinating trajectory. For him, the possibilities are galactic.
Genre: Literary / Humor
Print Length: 361 pages
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