…Base Camp looks as though a bored titan threw a few thousand boulders at the side of the range, and the shattered pieces then rolled down to form a moraine of rocks and light snow…
What am I talking about? Reading “Conquistador of the Useless.”
Drawing on references from Hollywood to the philosopher Heraclitus, Joshua Isard crafts a compulsive ascent from wry to revelatory. This book is not only beguiling, it’s a must read.
“Nathan Wavelsky moves into the burbs with his wife and two cats. Life is sweet. He’s a successful slacker. He doesn’t want to rock the boat.
But the boat starts to rock anyway. He gives a copy of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle to a teenage girl next door. Her parents are righteously appalled. His wife’s hormones start to tango and now she wants a baby. Worse, his best friend wants him to climb Mount Everest. Nathan likes to hike, but climbing in the Himalayas? He could die, for God’s sake. He just wants to be left alone. But no chance.
Shit begins to happen.”
Joshua: This is such a great question, because it’s changed so dramatically since I wrote Conquistador. I used to go to this great cafe in Bella Vista, my neighborhood in Philadelphia, for like three hours a day. I had plenty of time to procrastinate on the internet, have a cup of tea, get a refill, wait for the refill to get to the right temperature, shift around in my chair until I was comfortable, and then eventually start writing. I’m pretty efficient when I get started, but it took me ages to do that.
Now I have a kid, live in the suburbs, eat dinner at 6:00 instead of 8:00, and my job’s gotten a bit more intense.
I’m still a cafe person, but now if I grab even 45 minutes to run to my nearest Starbucks, I procrastinate far less—writing time is a precious commodity in my current life—and when I do, there’s just no way to make up for it.
What I’ve learned during this change, is that it’s not the atmosphere of the cafe, or coffee, or even the kind of music I listen to while I write. It’s routine. It’s doing the same thing in the same place every time that allows me to get work done. Whether it’s an hour of reading sports news, or three minutes reading about the new iPhone followed by a moment of self loathing for having wasted three precious minutes. Whether it’s an indie cafe in a quaint part of Philly, or just another Starbucks in a strip center off the highway. As long as it’s a routine, I work well.
Joshua: I don’t think redemption is the right word. Redemption means that the character has done something wrong, and I don’t think Nathan has transgressed. He’s self-centered, sure, and a little arrogant, but not in a way that affects other people. When he fires people at work, it’s not his decision to do so. When his neighbors think he’s done something inappropriate, they’re wrong about that.
Nathan might not always make the wisest decisions, but I don’t think he needs redemption, really.
I’d say, instead, that the story deals with nobility, in the way Hemingway used the word. Papa said: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
In the book, Nathan is both the protagonist and antagonist. It’s about him struggling against his youth in order to attain a level of maturity, but without becoming a wholly different person.
And, let’s be honest, a part of that struggle is for him to stop feeling superior to others, which he definitely does.
Personal development is by no means a new theme in literature, but I do think the kind of struggle Nathan goes through with himself is particular to people my age (people born within a few years of 1980). We tend to mature later, hang on to our youth a few years too long, and then have pretty big confrontations with what really ought to be, by that point, our “former selves.”