Review: The November Criminals by Sam Munson

The November Criminals by Sam Munson (Hachette Australia, November 2015)

What are your best and worst qualities?

It’s the kind of naff question asked in job interviews, team building exercises and, in this case, college admissions essays. For Addison Schacht—high school senior, minor drug dealer and classicist—it’s also an opportunity to ‘unburden’ himself.

The summer before Addison’s senior year his classmate Kevin Broadus—one of the few African American students in their high school’s Gifted and Talented Program is shot at point blank range during his shift at Stubb’s coffee house. The police have no leads. But while Kevin begins to fade in the student body’s collective memory, Addison can’t let go of his death—and he barely even knew the guy.

He joins forces with his associate-not-girlfriend, Digger Zeleny, to follow the clues and catch Kevin’s killer. But as Addison becomes increasingly consumed by the case, the investigation starts turning up more questions than answers.

Part crime novel, part caper and part coming-of-age narrative, The November Criminals is a smart, witty and poignant story of a young man trying to make sense of a messed up world and his place within it.

Written as what is surely the world’s longest college admission essay, the story is narrated in the style of a self-consciously precocious confessional, a style made famous by J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and perpetuated through Stephen Chbosky’s Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), D. B. C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little in his 2003 Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, John Green’s Miles Halter in Looking for Alaska (2005), Marisha Pessl’s Blue Van Meer in Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006) and countless others. I have a strong affection for these types of oddball characters, their quirky (and often darkly twisting) tales and the youthful philosophising that goes with them. But I’ve also read enough of these kinds of stories to know that there’s a fine line between poignant and gimmicky.

Both Munson’s story and his characters are pleasingly complex. Addison is pretentious as all get out, but he’s also self-depricating—a trait that saves him from falling under the banner of ‘irritating’. In the process of hunting down Kevin’s killer and working through some serious existential angst, he finds himself in increasingly troublesome situations: staked out in the bushes on the backwoods property of a suspected murderer, betting at a basement dog fight and leading the school choir in a pro-Hitler anthem—did I mention he’s Jewish? And he stumbles through it all, lurching ever closer to a state of seeming divine madness, with his nose pressed deep in Virgil’s The Aeneid; comparisons to Donna Tartt’s novels are inevitable and deserving.

And as in a Tartt novel, Munson’s supporting cast is peopled with heightened figures: slang-tongued, gunslinging Digger; Addison’s dealer, Noel—a disinherited pudgy WASP who thinks himself a ‘gangsta’—and his offsider David Cash, who is genuinely terrifying; Alex Faustner, the school’s resident brown noser and Addison’s arch nemesis whose haughtiness is bested only by her ignorance; and Addison’s dad, a failed artist too busy chasing postgrads to notice his son’s fast expanding weed empire and impending breakdown.

The November Criminals is, at times, wickedly funny, but Munson’s humour is pitch dark, and the story itself is harrowing in places. And graphic. If you’re after a fuzzy coming-of-age narrative, this story is not for you, my friend.

There’s a sense that Addison is grasping and scrabbling to understand his story even as he tells it—he’s a character overwhelmed by his sudden arrival in the adult world. The narrative rambles and wanders. Again and again, he hits pause: ‘I have to interrupt to explain something.’ ‘Now is a good point, I mean in the narrative or whatever, to answer a question I know must be on your minds…’ ‘Wait, though. I have to do some more backgrounding here.’ At one point, he begins a scene, by his admission, ‘for the third fucking time, ladies and gentlemen!’ It’s a technique that helps build Addison’s character and establish his struggle to make sense of his world. Indeed, it fulfills Addison’s conclusion that ‘Nothing is ever explicable in full. Only human character reveals anything worthwhile.’ But this technique also compromises pace. For a relatively short book, it’s a long read.

A lot of this interrupting is also necessary for the reader to make sense of Addison’s story. He’s the guy who likes to draw somewhat obscure allusions, which sounds pretentious but works in the context of his character. And Addison is more than happy to catch up his reader on highlights from The Aeneid and to explain what he means by calling himself a November Criminal. The actual so-called November Criminals, for those whose memory of high school Modern European History is a little fuzzy, were the German politicians who signed the Treaty of Versailles and ended World War One. In  Addison’s words it’s a term that, during Hitler’s rise to power,

…Took on a metaphysical aspect: someone who, through weakness and disingenuousness, betrayed his country. Not by spying or profiteering, but by morally undermining the war effort.

Basically, someone who fails to actively support their nation. A passive traitor. Addison argues that while there weren’t enough such people in Hitler’s Germany, he sees plenty in his America:

…As a November Criminal, I can say that, while November Criminality may not have been prevalent in 1920s Germany, it sure as shit exists in contemporary America, where it thrives in the most educated stratum of society.

So it’s story about power, patriotism and insidious betrayal. The themes are universal, though Munson’s treatment of them is culturally specific to middle-class U.S.A. and, as an Australian reader, there were places where I found myself on the outer. Not that I couldn’t follow what was happening, but rather that there were layers of meaning I couldn’t access.

Overall though, The November Criminals is a razor sharp read—as humorous as it is unnerving—with a bold, compelling voice.

Note: The November Criminals was originally published in the U.S. in 2010. This edition comes ahead of the 2016 film adaptation.

Thank you to Hachette Australia for providing a copy of The November Criminals in exchange for an honest review. 

See The November Criminals on Goodreads and purchase through Amazon, Book Depository or Kobo

If you liked The November Criminals, these titles might also tickle your fancy:

Catcher in the Rye Vernon_god_little_cover Special Topics in Calamity Physics
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)
Vernon God Little by D. B. C. Pierre (2003)
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (2006)
The Goldfinch Prep Perks
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (2005)
The perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)

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