Conquistador of the Useless by Joshua Isard
Cinco Puntos Press, 2013
When does one grow up? Do the achieved milestones of an adult life equal maturity? In Conquistador of the Useless Joshua Isard gives us Nathan Wavelsky, a man in his early thirties. He has a decent, if unfulfilling, job. He’s not particularly motivated, and he possesses no driving passions beyond reading, listening to music, and relaxing with a cup of tea after a day at the office. He’s created a niche for himself where he retreats when he’s able, the world kept at bay. Yet beneath this calm, a restlessness begins to blossom. At some level, he realizes he’s missing something fundamental, something he can’t quite name yet which he can’t suppress. He begins to reach out, sometimes with less-than-desirable results. He becomes a conquistador unsure of his quest.
The three currents that fuel the narrative provide a satisfying structure. There are Nathan’s present-day circumstances, the tribulations of his white-collar job and the vexing social navigations of modern suburbia. There are flashbacks to the Nathan of high school and college, a young man who often found himself on the periphery (although the periphery is where he seems most comfortable). The book’s final chapters bring him to the Himalayas, a climbing expedition that’s part whim, part early mid-life crisis. These strands, while seemingly disparate, are actually united by the concept of acclimation, a process that can be as painful as it is necessary. The young Nathan discovers part of himself in the music of his generation. This music speaks to him while also allowing him a footing with like-minded peers. Listen to Nathan’s explanation of how a single album delivered a clear dividing line in his young life:
And I think back to how my mother hated Pixies, how she almost didn’t believe I could like music like that, and how my friends who introduced me to all my favorite bands worried her. I remember the way those songs were exactly what I wanted to hear even though I didn’t know it until the first time Dan played Debaser for me in his car one afternoon, and how he did I spent years tying to get of copy of everything like it. And how so very little else mattered.
The adult Nathan is slowly making peace with the constraints of his job and the social weirdness of his wide-lawned neighborhood. He’s especially freaked out by the prospect of parenthood, that most final and most irreversible acclimation of adulthood, his reservations succinctly expressed in a morning exchange with his wife:
I think to myself about how this is a harsh concept to get hit with before I finish my first cup of coffee and when I thought I was going to get laid. We wouldn’t be able to sit on the bed like this anymore, her in a towel, me in nothing. Not until we’re fifty or so. I guess when your biological urge is to fuck rather than nurture you think about having children in negatives.
In the Himalayas, Nathan undergoes a climber’s physical acclimation, but he also makes a deeper transformation, an emotional acclimation of sorts. This, we realize, was the real mountain he had to climb.
A number of colorful side characters bring humor and engagement to Nathan’s journey. There’s Rayanne, a neighbor’s child, a figure who reminds Nathan not only of his own teen-self but also of the fact that feeling left-out isn’t something that ever really goes away. Isard offers us a typical, sullen fourteen year old, yet he also takes the time to render her in vivid hues, details that raise her from a stereotype and make her real. Here, he describes her during one of their early meetings:
You might think of her as apathetic because of her ripped jeans, faded T-shirt, and dirty Chuck Taylors. But she also puts her napkin on her lap. She doesn’t eat a thing until all three of us have full plates. She keeps her elbows off the table.
Then there’s Mark, Nathan’s best friend, an adventurer and party buddy. Independently wealthy and always trekking off to exotic locales, Mark is Nathan’s partner in crime for the Everest expedition. He serves as a counter to Nathan — a man free and unattached, his life filled with all the rewards and emptiness that entails.
Perhaps the novels most significant side character is Marshall Warren, a young scion of a well-to-do family who joins Nathan on his mountain adventure. Marshall says little, but in him, we see another reflection of Nathan, a young man somewhat adrift and searching. Through his dealings with Marshall, Nathan is presented not only with a mirror of what was and what might be, but also with the opportunity to grow emotionally and spiritually. Tragedy finds them, and in his responses — both in the moment and afterward — Nathan discovers a bravery he never knew he possessed.
Isard possesses a keen eye for finding humor in the modern world. We laugh with — and at — Nathan. Much of the humor is in the form of boundary setting — Nathan sees the idiocy and banality of the forces acting upon him, and through sarcasm or putdowns, he places himself beyond these tides which look to claim him . He’s an outside by choice, a man often too self-involved to let loose and fully enjoy himself. Here’s an observation from the tail-end of a neighborhood party: “A few of them start singing along with Livin’ on a Prayer, which is always a good indication that it’s time to go home, no matter where you are.” In another scene Nathan and Mark discuss their looming journey as they throw back a few beers in a dive bar. Nathan finds himself questioning Mark’s decision to come to such a place. He hates the pop-metal music, and labels the other patrons as submental. Mark, on the other hand, sees their fellow drinkers as more real and honest than those they’d find in upscale establishments. His friend accuses him of being the king of introverts, a title Nathan readily accepts. Yet in the end, Nathan realizes there can be a middle ground between individualism and the currents of the greater society. Love, family, forgiveness of self and others — here are the bonds we share, bonds which are stronger than the things that set us apart.
So does Nathan grow up? Maybe not all the way, but at least by the end of the novel, we’re assured he’s on the right path. Or at least a clearer one, one in which he can be true to his self while recognizing the benefits of being a member of the larger community of his fellow travelers.