Early in Adam Schwartz's debut novel, a creative writing student lashes out at her classmates, who've criticized a short story for having unlikable characters. "I think this business of whether or not we like a character is [nonsense]," she says. "We're supposed to be interested in characters, not like them." She's right, of course. Literature is filled with protagonists — Raskolnikov, Humbert Humbert and Alexander Portnoy, to name just a few — who are undoubtedly compelling but rarely, if ever, likable.
Seth Shapiro, the anti-heroic narrator of A Stranger on the Planet, isn't a villain but he's self-involved, stubborn and occasionally dishonest — not completely unlikable but not the kind of person you'd necessarily want at your dinner party. It doesn't matter, though — he's so fascinating, and Schwartz's prose so self-assured and accomplished, it's hard to turn away. Seth is imperfect and broken. Just like everyone else.
Schwartz's novel follows Seth over the course of 30 years, from his boyhood in New Jersey and education in Chicago, to his adulthood in Boston. The child of a fundamentally fractured home, Seth wants to be a writer but gives up his dream quickly after he's buffeted with criticism from his creative writing classmates and called out by his girlfriend for stealing one of her childhood experiences for a story. He goes to divinity school and briefly teaches English at a small college before ditching his career to become a stand-up comedian. Along the way, he struggles with a series of dysfunctional relationships — both with the women he dates and the neurotic family he was born into.
It's notoriously difficult to pull off fiction with a protagonist who's hard to root for. John Updike did it with Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, and Philip Roth with Nathan Zuckerman. (Roth and Saul Bellow, who's mentioned prominently in this novel, seem to be Schwartz's most obvious literary forebears.) Nonetheless, Schwartz manages to keep readers interested in Seth, even when he's making a string of awful decisions (many of which, of course, have to do with dating and sex). And while Seth has his problems, the scenes of him interacting with his beloved but crazy family are unfailingly touching, especially when it comes to his twin sister and best friend, Sarah, "my polar opposite, my North Star."
A Stranger on the Planet is charming, even if Schwartz stumbles occasionally — his sex scenes, in particular, can be distracting and almost absurd. And the dialogue of some of Seth's African-American college students at times rings painfully false. But Schwartz's careful, generous prose makes up for it, and his sincerity is genuinely winning. This might not be the best debut novel of the year, but it's original, sensitive and, unlike its hero, it's always, always likable.