Take the 1989 film Dead Poets Society and add the Police song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”. Throw in a load of Lolita and The Stranger. Season with a dash of Sartre and the biblical book of Job. Mix thoroughly with almost equal parts of teen angst, youthful optimism and adult cynicism. Add sexual desire and all its complications. Set the whole thing in Paris on the eve of the last Gulf War at an international high school for the privileged sons and daughters of the global elite. When done mixing let the concoction simmer against the sensual background of the City of Light.
What you have when you’re finished cooking is Alexander Maksik‘s debut novel You Deserve Nothing. Published in 2011 by Europa Editions, it’s one of four books that currently make up its Tonga Books imprint. According to Europa’s website, The Lovely Bones author Alice Sebold has been tasked with selecting and editing books for Tonga. From what I can gather, it looks like Sebold has a potentially challenging road ahead of her, since the publisher’s expectations of the new imprint Tonga look pretty high.
Tonga Books is characterized by strong narrative voice and story, and solid, well-written prose. Tonga is unafraid of darker material, uninterested in cleverness for the sake of cleverness, and passionate about depth of character. Among other things, Tonga hopes to cultivate the sort of cutting edge voices that go overlooked by larger publishing houses.
As for my expectations of You Deserve Nothing, I’m happy to report they were pleasantly exceeded. The novel is told from the perspective of three characters. One is William Silver, a gifted and passionate teacher who implores his students to look at the world through enlightened eyes as they tackle great pieces of Western literature. The other two are students, who find themselves drawn to Silver for quite different reasons, but each reason perhaps no less passionate than the other. There’s also a host of supporting characters, with my favorite being a young Irish bad boy blessed with a crude yet nevertheless accurate understanding of the world, putting him in a category of individuals light years ahead of his classmates. And probably most of his teachers.
About a week after I grabbed this novel from the library, on my lunch hour I passed a young woman who happened to have a copy of You Deserve Nothing under her shoulder. While trying not to look too forward, I asked her if she was enjoying it. She said yes, adding that she’d read over a third of it in just one sitting. I thanked her and told her I’d start reading my copy later that night. Thank goodness I took her advice.