Even if you were only half-awake in the late ’80s and early ’90s and only occasionally watched prime-time shows on ABC, you may remember the nostalgic narrator of The Wonder Years and the young urban professionals in thirtysomething, which sparked the now-commonplace term and later earned a place in the Oxford English Dictionary. Both shows were framed in the imagination of baby boomers, the Clinton-Gore age group back in 1992 whose childhood memories of Sixties counterculture now feels muted, ironed out into designer suits and body language that secure career paths and retirement plans. You might get a whiff of those two shows in Joshua Isard’s Conquistador of the Useless, through the tone of nostalgia for one’s teenage years that, to some extent, acts as an element of restraint and caution about being pulled too fast into an upwardly mobile career in information technology. The narratives of urban alienation in Pearl Jam, Kurt Cobain, MTV’s Daria, and Kurt Vonnegut are not mere artifacts in Nathan Wavelsky’s suburban world, but serve as imaginary sticky notes for a life filled with statistical reports, deadlines, and board meetings. Thus, Nathan accepts a big job promotion with trepidation and, knowing the ball is in his court, requests a few months off for something unrelated to his career: his condition for accepting the offer is that he starts working in his new job after climbing Mt. Everest.
For many mountain climbers—including the less experienced—the Himalayas are the ultimate object of desire, the height of ambition that needles through their imagination, their nine-to-five lives. Though he has only been to one mountain range in Denver back in college with best friend Mark, Nathan has “had dreams about the Himalayas since [he] was a kid.” Unlike Nathan, Mark is “independently wealthy,” thanks to advancements in storing digital information that he had patented after presenting it as a college senior thesis; but more so, besides the tangible and intangible luxuries that go with wealth, Mark is spared the boundaries that constitute commitment in a marriage, the kind usually equated with mortgage payments and raising children. Thus, when Mark invites Nathan to climb Mt. Everest, after returning from China, the details of their hectic lives appear to collide, before simmering down into moments of nostalgia of the old days they’d soon burn with “a two hundred dollar joint” that mellows them out.
But the idea of Mt. Everest refuses to mellow out in Nathan’s mind and eventually seeps into his marriage life, in its daily plans and necessary disagreements, looking for ways to anchor its weight in the unknown and in fears of what might happen. Thus, when his wife Lisa hears about Mark’s invitation, she thinks of her child with Nathan as “being half way to orphanhood.” This is her perspective on Nathan’s commitments as husband and future father, an underhanded accusation of irresponsibility that quietly advances in their household, even though the baby does not exist yet. And so the mountain stands between Nathan and Lisa as something that must be dealt with, like an annoying third party in an affair: somewhere out there, but still in their midst.
In many ways, though, Mt. Everest also signifies lost youth, amidst Nathan’s stable and promising career path; this materializes in Nathan’s suspicious friendship with a pretty fourteen-year-old teenager next door named Rayanne, whose taste in music appears to match Nathan’s, as though the thirtysomething is channeling his high school “wonder years” through her. Now even though Isard is careful not to deepen the situation between Rayanne and Nathan, keeping it as platonic and non-physical as possible, he seems to understand certain “uneven desires” that burden our perceptions of adults in our culture who appear too friendly around minors. This element in the novel does not necessarily amount to something cautionary, nor does Isard imply about it as something pathological, but that, simply, these tendencies exist, part of a broad range of human emotions and experiences that flourish in our culture.
In some ways, Rayanne gives Nathan’s longing for lost youth a texture, a reality—on some level, he refuses to grow out of an innocence still spared from values and structures that organize adult life. On the other hand, Isard constructs compelling plot twists that try to usher Nathan out of that condition or emotional cul-de-sac, ever aware of a narrative arc, though perhaps not as sharp and pointy as the Himalayas.
A fellow mountain climber is indelible to those devices, a college student, the son of a computer mogul who freezes to death in one of the basecamps up there in Nepal. This weakens Nathan’s desire to continue climbing the highest peak of the Himalayas, as though suddenly that death inspires the death of Nathan’s childhood dream to climb Mt. Everest. Even though he does not make it to the highest peak of the world, Nathan fulfills that dream in some way by simply being there, attempting his climb. Indeed, he is a conqueror of sorts, an epithet that echoes the one applied to the main character in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a film based on a Peruvian rubber baron of Irish-American ancestry who transported a ship over a mountain in the 19th century, and was dubbed Conquistador of the Useless. At times, the title sounds like the novel meditates heavily on the Sisyphean dimensions of ordinary life that structure America’s middle-class: interminable, repetitious, and always raging against boredom, against the uselessness of it all. But Isard refuses the clouds of Greek drama to hang over Nathan’s life, and manages to end his novel with something sweet and easy like a sunny, Sunday afternoon at the park.