Joshua Smith’s The Dream Journal of J.D. Solomon will challenge you. Yes, on the surface it’s a literate comedy, but there is so much more going on beneath the surface. I enjoyed this book, had some misgivings about this book, but, ultimately, I’m glad I decided to read it. Here’s why.
Smith’s vocabulary will likely knock you back on your heels. As in, keep Smith’s book close, but a dictionary closer. Now, I do appreciate it when an author makes me look up a word or two, but Smith’s expansive vocabulary takes that ball and runs with it, into the sunset, then over the horizon and out of sight; indeed, if you don’t come out the back side of this book thinking you could give Shakespeare a run for his linguistic legerdemain, then I doff my hat to you.
The social commentary.
Smith calls the experiences of his central character a dream journal, a novel in stories, but the reality is this book is more like a journal of nightmares, presented with an acerbic wit and degree of exaggeration that would put Josiah Bounderby’s tales in Hard Times to shame, but nightmares still. However, these are nightmares via consequences, since the book’s characters, including our main one, J.D., are feeling the end result of their disregard for the unspoken rules of social cohesion, à la: don’t work, don’t eat. And so on.
Exaggeration as social commentary.
Women. Progressive politics. Italian stereotypes. The military. Artists. Many, many groups endure excoriation in Smith’s Dream Journal. I found all of them funny, some disturbing, and a few a bit cringe. Perhaps I was being too sensitive. Perhaps Smith is a bit of a jerk. Or, perhaps, like after wading through scene after scene of misogyny in Antony and Cleopatra we come upon a linguistic gem, “Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have / Immortal longings in me.”
So, too, do we find such gems with Smith:
“Much less did the contortions of his mouth resemble the low-serotonin leer of a loaf-thieving waif, and much more the hard-fought, crooked grin of a gentleman who had stood before the horrors of the Ninth Circle, grimaced slightly, spit out a bit of gnarled lip, and asked Virgil which way to the Tenth.”
And you’ll find Shakespearean call-backs all over the place in the book, as well as other honourable mentions, like that nod to Dante above.
And now, we must confront the Caulfield in the room.
The hat-tip to Salinger is unmistakable. The arc of J.D. wandering the city is like that of the main character in The Catcher in the Rye: a disaffected young man eventually finding solace in the emotional exuberance of youth. In Holden’s case, his little sister; in J.D.’s, an intellectually and emotionally stunted wife, who, through her heart-felt kiss, forgives all.
Does it work? Imagine a thinking emoji, followed by a shoulder-shrug emoji, followed by another thinking one. Then go read the book. I’m glad I did, and I think you will be, too.