Assault on the Senses, a reprinting of a 2007 novel chronicling the travails of one Kalvin Gray, a college frat boy who starts the countdown for happy hour before he begins his first class and ends up–in no small part because he’s shuffling through life drunk, judged by most people as an asshole–framed for a sexual assault he did not commit. The conversational tone of the narration is its strength, though, at times, having a narrator who thinks idiotic thoughts and readily relays them to the reader can be a bit like following an assinine Twitter feed–“I hooked up with the Hot, Liberal Arts Chick. I’m fucking awesome.” Or, “It’s really hard to blow smoke rings. A lot of people say the trick is to use your tongue. Others say you can only do it by curling your upper lip downwards. I try both. Nothing.” Or the frequent assessment of assorted women as “friggin’ hot. Just plain hot.”
Yet Ferrari is able to turn Kalvin into an endearing character precisely because of this constant, stream-of-thought intimacy. The doofus who, early in the novel, is relishing his own classroom farts while simultaneously rhapsodizing about how much he loves “freshman girls in all their slutty, undressed goodness,” becomes a richly conceived character on the brink of, maybe, growing up. “At the risk of sounding like a teenage girl writing poetry for her English 101 class,” he says, before saying something he actually feels. “I mean, I’m starting to think that the reason I–not just me, but all of us–the reason all of us drink so much and sleep all day is because we’re just too friggin’ scared. We’re too friggin’ scared and stupid to look into the future, because we know we’re all totally unprepared, and we’re going to get eaten alive, not by the ‘real world’ but by life in general, and it sucks. It just sucks, plain and simple.”
Kalvin’s story continues in the novella “What Ever Happened to Kalvin L. Gray?” included in Training the Problem along with stories about blackmailing priests, a female narrator relaying the step-by-step details of her shooting death, a dog inspired to racial consciousness by watching John Singleton movies, some pure murderous viciousness, a stoner’s story of a crusty hotel hook-up, and a series of “Letters from the Emotionally Retarded.” Unfortunately, the tone here is more like early Kalvin, the guy who, in Assault on the Senses assessed “how serious” the charges against him were this way: “I realize there’s a good chance I’ll never get laid in Berkshire University again. I have almost a year and a half left before I graduate. Granted, my sex life is about as active as a one-legged runner, but the idea of being strictly banned from any possibility of sex is, well, scary.”
In Training the Problem the poignancy of emotional disconnection is too often dulled by the character of the narrators. While “haunted” by past relationships, racism, misogyny, emotional numbness or straightforward cruelty make these folks hard to take. As one, characteristic, narrator says of his situation: “No matter how charming you may be, there’s no way you can turn a story about your dick causing a super-tight vagina to split open and belch blood into a decent pick-up line.” This narrator, it should be noted, was trying to use the story to help win a “rebound” relationship. Not that Problem doesn’t also feature a strong tone of melancholy under all the belching and drinking, along with some reflections on growing older, but it misses the innocent notes sounded in Assault, like Kalvin’s pondering, in that novel, that if “Guys can ejaculate from their dreams; is it so hard to believe they can get worked up and let down by them as well?”
Indeed, the Kalvin Gray of the novella, “What Ever Happened to Kalvin L. Gray?” isn’t nearly as compelling as he was in Assault. The trappings are familiar, as the novella opens with Kalvin waiting for “death by dehydration,” surrounded by the same “crumpled cigarette packets, mangled and crushed beer cans and the standard half-empty waters I’ve come to use as ashtrays over the years.” His senior year at Berkshire University, still drunk, still widely considered an asshole, Kalvin again finds himself the target of persecution, though in this case the problem is the campus Women’s Center, campaigning–without regard to evidence–that he should be registered as a sex offender. Our protagonist discovers this fact when he prepares to dump a load of Women’s Center literature in the trash. “I felt almost righteous trashing pamphlets that indirectly trashed my penis,” he says, taking time to survey the pages enough to know that under the “garbage” about “the several different flavors of rape a girl can encounter” were “weepy statistics” and “numbers and facts that could easily be used to pad a feminist manifesto against the penis. Standard stuff you’d expect from the types of girls who probably insist on changing the spelling of women to ‘womyn,’ just so there’s no trace of men in their gender: stuff about men making more than woman in the world place, stuff about glass ceilings, shit like that.” Whatever you think of Kalvin’s tirade, it’s hard to imagine a man who, months before, ran into heavy legal trouble and the sort of crisis that might well wise a person up, to here be so dismissive and hostile. “Acquaintance rape?” thinks Kalvin. “I don’t even know what that is.” It’s either too much vitriol, or too little sense–in any case, there’s nothing here to care about, to empathize with. Along with that distance comes a falsity, as we, as readers, are expected to believe that this is the same narrator we came to know in some detail before, who can here say of himself, “Imagine a portrait of the stereotypical poor college student, pour a couple of unnecessary pints of alcohol into his bloodstream and put a comic-book thought bubble over his head with the word ‘Duh’ in it, and there I am.” Only, jarringly, there’s no irony in such self-assessment, and, sadly, instead of a comic “Duh” here Kalvin is saying “Acquaintance rape? I don’t even know what that is.”
Assault on the Senses is in every way a stronger book, but likely fans of it will check out the other as well, and perhaps, with enough such fans, Ferrari will return to Kalvin Gray in the future. Here’s hoping that characterization advances the poor guy a little, letting him learn a few things from those experiences that, as he says in Assault, “blew my brain open.” In Assault he uses this phrase to describe his last visit home, a revelation of sorts, or at least a nudge toward one. At the breakfast table, Kalvin, a twenty-one-year-old man, dug his hand into a cereal box, fishing for a prize:
I pulled my hand out with the toy in tow, little pieces of Apple Jacks falling and bouncing off the tabletop like hunks of flavored moon rocks falling to Earth. I tore into the plastic, fingers crossed for a T-Rex.
“Aw, dammit!” I yelled in a fit. My mom, who was sitting across from me the whole time, who saw me probe an innocent box for a cheap plastic dinosaur, just looked up at me. “I already have the brontosaurus,” I explained to her.
Without notice, my mom stood up from the table, shook her head and said one thing: “When I was your age, I was already married and had a kid.”