I’ll begin with my only real knock on The Nostalgia Echo: it’s hard to summarize what this book is about in a sentence or less. I’ve read the book twice now and I still can’t do it. It’s becoming a bit of a problem because people frequently ask me if I’ve read anything great lately. I’ll say, “Yes! The Nostalgia Echo. You have to check it out.” Then they’ll ask me what it’s about and I’ll start stammering. I’ll do my best to answer that question for this review, though.
The Nostalgia Echo is about nostalgia, in short. Hess has probed into the history of nostalgia, tracing it back to its earliest days when conscripted Swiss soldiers couldn’t fight because they missed their homeland too much. He remembers a time when nostalgia was viewed as a disease, and he examines cures that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century doctors proposed for the disease. And he invents a fictional 2006 (appropriately just far enough in the past for us to remember it with a winsome air) where nostalgia rules.
The novel follows three characters who are on a course to become entangled in each others lives. First is Dr. Barnes, a nostalgia theorist at Princeton. In 1976, he wrote a book called The Good Old Days Never Happened. It was one of the worst-selling books of all time. Only five people attended his book event at the Philadelphia public library. Well, three people and two fetuses. Those fetuses developed into the other two main characters of the book: Lon Friday and the narrator, Gene.
Lon is a graffiti artist who has made a stencil of the picture of Dr. Barnes’ face and painted it all over Philadelphia. It has become a sensation similar to Shepard Fairey’s Andre the Giant. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to keep him from following his father’s footsteps and becoming a realtor.
Gene is not only the narrator of the book, he’s a professional narrator in the book. His job is to narrate the talking head “documentaries” that flood television. His narration on a piece about the worst-selling books of all time triggers his search for Dr. Barnes. The three characters steer an unconscious course for each other, and end up together in Princeton, New Jersey, where Lon struggles to regain his creativity and save his marriage, Gene searches for his adoptive mother and for love with Dr. Barnes’s live-in caretaker, and Dr. Barnes struggles against dementia.
Along the way, Hess takes us into a reality adjacent to our own, where narrators go to narrator school to learn their trade and where Nostalgia Studies is a department at Princeton. It’s a world where the present is too banal or painful to face, but as soon as it becomes the past, it’s wonderful again. It’s a world close enough to our own to recognize, but distant enough from our own to see the absurdity of our contemporary life. Through it all, Hess displays a playfulness and a wry sense of humor reminiscent of Vonnegut. He also pastes together familiar (and not so familiar) elements of contemporary society—addiction memoirs, monster movies, class reunions, where-are-they-now-type TV shows, and Colonel Sanders’ autobiography—into a literary collage the way a hip hop DJ pastes samples together to make a new beat.
In the end, the book is imaginative and original. Most impressively, it’s more than just a meditation on nostalgia and more than a fresh approach to how to write a novel, it’s also a heartfelt character study. The reader comes to feel for and even love the major characters in the book. It’s hard not to get swept up in their lives. It’s even harder to put the book down. In short, The Nostalgia Echo is one of the best new books I’ve read in the last few years. I can’t recommend it highly enough. (C&R Press, 812 Westwood Ave., Ste. D, Chattanooga, TN 37405)