Monday, January 9, 2012

Review of The Bull Years by Phil Stern

The Bull Years, a novel by Phil Stern, is about three people who are turning 40 and facing the questions and challenges that are common halfway through life.

The central character in Stern's novel is Steve Levine, a disillusioned man who wants to be a writer but hasn't made it. He had some past success in the talk radio business before it bottomed out and left him with no job. Now, he's a home water treatment salesman and he's writing a project based on the life stories of two friends from college, whom he lost touch with after a dramatic breakdown in their friendship years earlier. Steve and his two friends write their sides of the story as well as other life experiences that have led each of them to where they are today, at the age of forty.

The story concept is interesting. It's common for people to evaluate their life at middle age, and readers can certainly relate to it. Stern throws in a younger character telling her story at age 23, as a counterpoint to the stories of the older characters. That technique works at times to illustrate the differences in the way we think at different points of our lives. And how hindsight is something you develop only after some bad experiences in life.

It's clear that the whole novel is driving toward one big reveal: what happened to Steve and his friends twenty years earlier to break up their relationships and drive them apart? That scene is well written, though also predictable. After all, there are only so many things that cause a dramatic blow up with your friends when you're twenty. But that plot point is not a problem.

What is a problem is that the characters are largely unlikable. Steve is opinionated and bitter, which fits his character but makes him hard to stomach. His friend Dave is a whipping boy for much of his life; he's more likable but he makes some really stupid decisions. The other friend, Sophia, is a wild child, rebelling through sexual encounters. It's not exactly porn, but it's not enlightening either. The 23-year-old Hayley is a particularly snarky person who has no clue about life, though she thinks she does. As a result, there is no character that I enjoyed coming back to. By the end, I was tired of them all, in spite of the interesting premise.

Novels like this often give a slice of life and make commentaries on society. It's fair to say there are some readers who will gravitate toward The Bull Years and enjoy it. (You can read the positive reviews on Amazon if you like.) For me, though, I didn't come away with a catharsis that might have made the characters' disillusionment, sarcasm, confusion, and despair redeemable. And in the end, that just doesn't work for me.

If you've read The Bull Years, I'd love to hear what you thought of it. If not, what do you think of stories that try to "mirror" real life without providing an a-ha moment to redeem the darkness of the story?

For more information on The Bull Years or to read it for yourself, visit Phil Stern's website.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

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