Book Review: Zoology by Ben Dolnick

My feelings about this novel exactly.

I can be bored by books, or bewildered by the author’s choices, or unable to suspend my disbelief enough to buy into a story, but it’s rare that I feel the visceral level of dislike that I felt while reading Ben Dolnick’s debut novel Zoology.

Henry Elinsky fails his first year of college. To escape the boredom of living at home with his parents for the summer, Henry accepts his older brother’s offer of a place to live in New York City and a job working at the Central Park Zoo. He ends up befriending another summer transplant, Margaret, and bonds with her as various tragedies befall them both.

Zoology is a slim novel, topping out at 300 pages, but it felt longer for me. A huge stumbling block was our “hero” himself, Henry, who is just straight-up unlikeable and not in an interesting way–in an 18-year old man-child way. I kept getting the sense that Dolnick was trying to reach for Holden Caufield-esque protagonist in Henry. But Holden, despite how you may feel about him, felt things and felt them strongly–not just about himself, but about the injustices and hypocrisies he saw in the world around him.

Henry is, by contrast, a boring sadsack. He has no sense of relativism, no curiosity, no unselfishness, no compassion. He gets angry when a girl he likes doesn’t want to date him and hopes that by staying friends with her, he’ll win her away from her boyfriend. (Um, respect her choice, dude; she said no.) Perhaps I’ve been spoiled, but the 18-year old boys I grew up with–like my brother and my boyfriend–were not like Henry at all. Thankfully.

The plot bears little mentioning, since it is meandering and confused. From what I gather, this is supposed to be a young man’s coming of age throughout one summer. But things seem to just happen to Henry, who passively does what the story requires of him without displaying any agency or critical thinking. The job at the zoo, for example, just falls into his lap. (Is that seriously how it happens? Don’t you at least need to have some qualifications in biological or zoological sciences?) He becomes friends with Margaret because of her initiative, not his own. He starts to write because she writes, he plays sax because his dad was a musician, etc. Dude’s basically a jellyfish floating along with the current.

Something that gnawed on me was Henry’s (and therefore, Dolnick’s) descriptions of other humans. They were cruel, veering into grotesque. Physical differences were expounded upon gleefully; everyone was pimply or frizzy-haired or obese or sour-smelling or sweaty. Intellectually, I imagine that Dolnick intends this to signal Henry’s immaturity, perhaps his lack of empathy towards others. However, even in my darkest teen years–and I was no angel; I kicked a hole in my house’s wall during an argument with my parents once!–I never once thought about my parents’ physical appearances like Henry does: their potbellies, their loose skin, the bags underneath their eyes, their twiggy arms and bald spots are all dissected. I was also unsure why every black and Hispanic stranger and bystander’s ethnicity needed to be mentioned, when it held very little relevance to the story. (There were no mentions of this when the character was white, such as Margaret. She instead got the royal treatment of “pale glowing skin” and however else immature boys like to describe the white girls they develop crushes on).

There were threads that, if they had been expanded upon or at least woven more seamlessly into the story, could have saved Zoology. The parallels between Henry’s failed dreams of being a jazz musician and his father’s, for example, or the collapse of his parents’ marriage mirroring that of his brother’s relationship with his girlfriend. Perhaps switching the POV from first-person to third would have helped, by getting us out of the miserable cage of Henry’s thoughts. But I’m inclined to chalk this one up to simply not having anything to say, and not saying it well, either. It may make me immature to say that, but at least not any less mature than Zoology.

Bookwanderer Rating: One out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “I squeezed in on the other side of him, and it wasn’t a date over rose-petal sundaes, sitting with seven goats and all this dust and dirty hay, but I knew, listening to all of them breathing, that this was when I should kiss her.”
Other Reviews: Kirkus, Books for Breakfast, The New Yorker

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