Going Dutch by James Gregor
Big city dating is quite the battlefield, and James Gregor’s Going Dutch is as current and insightful a portrait as one might find. At his worst, the story’s protagonist Richard treats social capital as one might regard expendable soldiers in Game of Thrones. Acts of genuine interpersonal relationships exist in his subconscious as mere numbers in a spreadsheet: someone helps him with his floundering PhD dissertation, another serves as a shoulder to cry on, the next person picks up the check at a stylish NYC eatery. In an amusing sequence of missteps, Richard arrives at the rude awakening that he himself has very little to bring to the table, and while the objects of his desire seem perfect from a distance, acquiring them only renders them all the more insufficient. The semi-tragic tale adds up to a graceful page-turner that is brutally hilarious and honest to boot.
Twentysomething PhD student Richard has hit a wall head-on. His Italian literature dissertation is floundering, and he plods through the thankless trenches of the gay online dating scene in NYC. He finds unexpected but alluring companionship in Anne, a fellow student in his program who starts assisting with his dissertation to the point of essentially writing it for him. Enabling this disproportionate division of labor, Richard is complicit in allowing Anne to indulge in the fantasy of her crush on a gay man. Which is a romantic dead end…unless it isn’t? Though the unspoken comfort of their intimacy leads to a spark of a bisexuality Richard didn’t know existed, the imbalance of contribution careens toward an inevitable clash of misplaced expectations. Meanwhile, Richard finally lands some success in the dating world with Blake, a well-rounded lawyer, cook and confidant. In his selfishness, Richard goes to increasingly irresponsible extremes to maintain the love triangle. Yet the story’s pivotal moments aren’t during the inevitable shit-makes-contact-with-fan, but rather during the aftermath, a denouement that speaks volumes about the current love economy.
Richard’s imperfections are numerous, and he lies with increasing frequency to the most generous people around him—yet somehow, he’s not quite unlikable. If anything, readers can cringe and sympathize over his lack of initiative and absence of spine, in an unforgiving city that’s not there to baby him. Careerwise, he’s painted himself into a corner of literature academia, ill-suited to deliver in an industry even he acknowledges is replete with performative ephemera. He’s gradually forced to grapple with the reality that he “isn’t a provider.” He can’t cook to save his life, signs up for random credit cards that arrive unsolicited in the mail, and is hardly what friends might describe as a good listener.
He’s never quite comfortable “going dutch” to meet someone halfway friendships or romance, or even literally splitting the tab at restaurants. Never before has a novel so successfully and hilariously built tension in dinner scenes, fueled by an ascending agony about whether the other person might pick up the check. Richard’s often busy searching for behavioral clues that might indicate who’ll cover the tab, hindering his capacity to be truly present. It’s emblematic of the novel’s portrayal of an era in which romantic pursuits are viewed in terms of mutually beneficial transactional relationships. When Richard does muster the ability to listen, he expects something in return. He seeks a longtime partner for the practicality of cohabitation, a two-way relief of each other’s financial woes. He views marriage as a division of labor, yet is oblivious that he doesn’t meet anyone halfway. He can only sustain this denial for so long, until his shortcomings fan the flames of his insecurity. He’s tired of listening and really wants to be heard, yet when his friends or lovers ask him how things are going, all he hears is interrogative snooping—social competitors looking for a “gotcha” moment of embarrassment.
Going Dutch isn’t a book about online dating per se, but the plot provides an effective context to examine transactional relationships down to a hard science. Richard’s dating app perusals have a depressing hilarity; diverse humanity is pared down to a menu of options with common attributes that start to look the same: an Eiffel tower picture, an obligatory body shot, and a recurring set of self-descriptive phrases that blend in with the wallpaper. And this overwhelming paradox of choice has long since normalized the rather discourteous behaviors of flaking and ghosting. Richard even rationalizes that Blake’s disappearance after their first date, and their eventual chance run-in at a party, was all part of the modern “dance.” Readers currently weathering the dating trenches will find plenty to laugh about and commiserate over, while older generations will enjoy an insightful glimpse of how it’s done these days.
One of the more pronounced characters in this ongoing battle is the character of New York City itself, serving as a key component in the engine of warped reality to which Richard is beholden. He looks around this “happening” hub and sees only clusters of fun people who have it all figured out, bubbling with laughter about run-ins with celebrities, boasting exclusive invites to openings and sample sales. One gorgeous moment describes the streets gushing with young men on their vibrant way, zealous platelets in a bloodstream. This very hip city, plus the aforementioned dehumanization of the Love.Com industry, fuels Richard’s depression of comparative identity. Yet in an interesting turn of relativity, NYC somehow quietly emerges as a default bin for people with nowhere to be, an obligatory stop before setting sights on London or LA. For Richard and many like him, even fairly distinguished accomplishments quickly grow stale, in turn warning readers about the hedonistic, aimless trappings of the modern world.
Going Dutch is an exceptionally good debut novel that isn’t without its flaws. In one awkward micro-moment, Richard and his friends play a classic Super Mario game, whose player character is described as slaying a dragon. (I assure you this has not once happened within the Mario canon.) That nitpick aside, the only overarching issue is Gregor’s intermittent vocabulary show-offing, using terms known to <1% of the population. Forgiving this lack of restraint, Gregor lands in the company of Jeffrey Eugenides, compassionately portraying the timeless struggle to assemble a portfolio of identity that might attract some bites in the unforgiving dating market. Both authors are interested in that tentative phase of early adulthood, during which decisions and mistakes can have considerable ripple effects in the years to come. The arena in which the battle is waged may evolve over time, but the underlying components and overall stakes are as timeless and relevant as ever.