“The Enthusiast” by Josh Fruhlinger

I’ll admit to having been burned a few times by the popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter.com. A documentary, two graphic novels, an album—these are projects I supported that never materialized. You pay your money and you take your chances, as they say, but it’s still disappointing. (Luckily, most of the Kickstarters I’ve backed have been pretty cheap; I’m glad I didn’t pay $500 for a 40-pound, Bluetooth-enabled cooler.)

The Enthusiast by Josh FruhlingerI didn’t hesitate to back Josh Fruhlinger’s novel The Enthusiast, since I was a longtime fan of his Comics Curmudgeon blog. The Kickstarter raised over $20,000 in the summer of 2012; the book’s estimated delivery date was “November 2013,” but writing a first novel turned out to be a bit more challenging than Josh had anticipated (plus, he moved from Baltimore to Los Angeles in 2014). “More than a year ago, when I finished the first draft of the novel, I was significantly overoptimistic as to how much work remained,” Josh told his backers this past August. Explaining his radio silence, he added, “I’d let so many deadlines slip previously that I didn’t want to send out any news until I had something concrete to tell you.”

Well, a few days ago, my copy of The Enthusiast finally turned up, and… happily, the book was worth the wait. It’s a funny, charming, well-written novel, and while there were times I feared Josh was about to make a misstep, he made exactly the right choice instead. (For instance, there’s one point where it becomes clear that Kate, the book’s heroine, is about to have sex; Josh wisely fades to black instead of describing the scene. This automatically makes him a savvier debut novelist than Morrissey.)

Kate, in her midtwenties, works for the Subconscious Agency (“Enthusiasm Is Our Business”), a D.C. firm hired by companies that want to build excitement around their products. Kate’s job is not entirely dissimilar to those of the “brand ambassadors” hired by liquor manufacturers to visit bars and talk about how much they adore Brand X Rum in hopes of creating a buzz. As the book opens, Kate has infiltrated a group of railfans who spend all their time talking about trains on Internet message boards; she has joined them on a “livesite,” an in-person meet-up, that only Kate and her colleague Mesut know is a carefully orchestrated event meant to gin up excitement for a Siemens subway car that the German company is hoping to sell to the D.C. Metro. “[A]s she enjoyed feeling the train’s roar in her guts, other parts of [Kate’s] brain were assessing each of the trainspotters in turn. The client was going to make a multi-million-dollar pitch to a regional transit agency… Which of these guys was going to go to a public meeting at a middle school auditorium on a weeknight? And of those, which of them would come across least like a crazy person?”

Apartment 3GBesides the Siemens gig, Kate also gets an assignment to hold a focus group for fans of a soap-opera comic strip called “Ladies Who Lunch,” which is obviously a loving homage to one of Josh’s favorites, “Apartment 3-G.” Much to Josh’s dismay, “A3-G”‘s final strip ran in November; personally, of the continuity strips, I prefer “Mary Worth,” which at least has half-decent artwork. “A3-G”‘s art got worse and worse as the years progressed, most likely due to the fact that the man who drew it ’til the bitter end, Frank Bolle, is now 91 years old. (A character in The Enthusiast who seems inspired by Bolle is a mere child of 87.) The “Ladies Who Lunch” material in the novel will delight anyone who’s a fan of the Comics Curmudgeon, but anyone who’s ever encountered a soap-opera strip will find it amusing. (While reading through the “Ladies Who Lunch” archives, “Kate could see a consistent direction: every year the characters’ faces took up more and more of the panels, and as the focus got tighter and tighter, there was less room to dedicate to their fabulous clothes and quirky decor… Even though the faces took up more of the panel, they weren’t any more detailed, and you were left looking at unsettlingly vast and undifferentiated expanses of forehead and cheek.”)

Despite Kate’s young age, she’s a bit of a curmudgeon herself—she hates the hip electronic music she has to listen to for a work project, and her favorite restaurant is a “TGI Fridays”-like chain called Pickles. One storyline in the book revolves around Kate’s dogged efforts to find out who owns the movie rights to “Ladies Who Lunch”; that particular plot point made me think now that “A3-G” has gone off to that great syndicate in the sky, what Josh really needs to do for an encore is buy the rights and reboot the strip. I’ll even toss a few bucks his way on Kickstarter.

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