Friday, January 22, 2010

American Nerd: The Story of My People

I'm something of a nerd.

[Pause for discomfiting absence of fainting and gasping.]

Nerds are human and humans are narcissists, so when I heard of a whole book devoted to my particular phylum of humanity, I pounced. The books is by Benjamin Nugent, who has a deliciously nerdy last name, but who, in his cover photo, stares fixedly out at the camera from a far-too-handsome face. The explanation for the disjunction is revealed, casually, in early chapters: Nugent is an ex-nerd, a nerd who ran from, then got tangled up in, his roots.

There should be a neater label for this. There should be a word which circumscribes the dimensions of ex-nerddom. Refugee implies too much will: Nugent believes he tore himself away from nerddom, but I believe he was simply too good-looking. A good-looking nerd, like a billionaire nerd or a computing-giant-founder nerd, bobs helplessly to the top of nerdery's primordial ooze like an opera singer in a salt bath. Although Nugent correctly divines that nerdhood chose him, that he had little choice but to have "a rich fantasy life in which [he] carried a glowing staff," he is less astute about who ditched whom.

Back to words: Judas captures only one dimension of ex-nerddom. Recovering implies an illness. After reading Nugent's book I wonder if a better word isn't survivor. Teenage nerdhood, as depicted by Nugent, is a trauma. It's a natural disaster, a seizing and shaking of the self. However you choose to live your life post-trauma, you bear its marks.

Hence Nugent, picking over the bones of nerddom. Hence me, tracking his progress. American Nerd is part history, part reportage, part memoir. It's a volatile mix, and, thrust into a 224-page test-tube, the history, reportage and memoir explode all over the place. Nugent goes haring off in one direction after another, juggling anecdote and theory, fact and observation. All of it is interesting, but very little of it is thoroughly or convincingly explored.

Within the first 100 pages Nugent has thrown out:
  • A theory of American racism interpreted in relation to constructs of jock and nerd
  • A short discourse on Endicott Peabody, Groton Headmaster and anti-intellectual
  • A history of the nerd in Western literature from Mary Bennet to Gussie Fink-Nottle
  • An eye-witness account of a Thursday meeting of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society
  • A survey of back issues of the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute Bachelor
  • An SNL sketch
  • A memoir set-piece about his Jewish grandmother's interrogation of his poop
There's probably a book down each of these alleys, but Nugent plows through all of them at top speed like...well, like a nerd. Nugent's archetypal nerd is someone who craves order and rules, a way to make sense of the jungles of everyday life and social interaction. But I'd argue that another key feature of nerdhood is interest. Nerds are interested. They wanna know. They turn down every dead end, crack every door, hoist open every treasure chest in the dungeon. It may be tough to be a nerd, but it's also tough to bore one.

Nugent misses this because he is, as he explains in his prologue, blinkered:

"Running through the halls with a backback that was capable of doing real harm to others didn't do much to draw sympathy, so nobody raised serious objections when every once in a while somebody hit me in the crotch with a clarinet case or a hockey stick. All of which is to say my journalistic objectivity with regard to my subject matter is seriously compromised. But I am trying my best."

Nugent's best, fortunately for us, is very good. And when, in the second half of the book, he abandons frantic theorizing for an exploration of his own nerdy past, American Nerd blossoms. Nugent tracks down Darren and Kenneth, two D&D brethren he befriended and -propelled by good-looks and self-loathing- betrayed. He inveigles answers about their shared past, their present, and their future: all of it shot through with nerdhood. Here's Nugent taking his leave of Kenneth:

"We go outside and say our good-byes, lingering, suddenly aware of how much older we are than the last time we parted. I'm almost thirty now; he's thirty-one. Our hairlines have receded by the same amout. He walks the excitable squirrel-mutt, which he informs me was rescued from a nearby house of cocaine addicts who used to shut it in a closet. It noses the ground obsessively, accounting for every speck of dust, until it's finally pulled away. I think about death; that is, I think about how little time we get and how much time we spend inventing and following rules that makes us feel immortal and safe."

When Nugent finally abandons his pose of objectivity, American Nerd coalesces from a loose constellation of facts into a luminous tale of survival. It's a late bloomer -but then, most nerds are.

P.S. I'm still taking last-minute entries for my 2010 book challenge. A huge thank you to everyone who's already given me the names of books they love! Heedless, witless love! Stupid, blinkered passion! Step up, if you haven't already.

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