Grad’s debut novel likened to ‘Gatsby’

Nervous members of the class of 2007 may want to avoid “The Tourists,” a new novel by Jeff Hobbs ’02.

For the book’s main characters, Yale graduates facing the grim reality of adulthood in Manhattan, life after Yale is a bitter struggle against meaningless jobs and unraveling relationships, laced with nostalgia for simpler times in the Elm City.

Not exactly promising. But apparently, a good read.

Released on April 24, the novel has received early acclaim — a Los Angeles Times review compared Hobbs to F. Scott Fitzgerald and his novel to “The Great Gatsby,” and Publishers Weekly called the book a “Gatsby-meets-McInerney (of ‘Bright Lights, Big City’) debut.”

Despite these grand comparisons, Hobbs referred to his novel as “this little fiction book” and said “The Tourists” follows many “lousy” novels that he penned.

“I’m anxious for the readings and everything to be over so I can get back to our quiet little life and back to work,” he said.

The novel’s plot centers around Ethan Hoevel, an enigmatic designer; David Taylor, Yale golden boy and track star turned disenchanted financial analyst; and Samona Ashley, David’s beautiful, unhappy wife.

The unnamed narrator, like “Gatsby’s” Nick Carraway, balances between friend to the characters and detached observer. Also like Carraway, the narrator is a lonely outsider whose life is overshadowed by those of his friends. But his longtime crush on Samona, envy of David and complicated friendship with Ethan entwines him deeply in the plot of the story.

Hobbs said he used Gatsby as a roadmap for his narrative style, and read the book many times during the writing process for instructional value.

“I wanted [the narrator] to be the lens,” Hobbs said. “He’s unnamed because I wanted him to be a voyeur into the lives of the characters who actually form the drama. The reader finds out the pieces of the mystery as the narrator does.”

The characters in “The Tourists” are not based directly on real people, Hobbs said, but are compilations of things he has seen and people he has known.

“You just kind of collect details and try to remember everything you overhear,” he said. “Every conversation you have and every interesting detail you see in the bodega across the street. Then, when I’m working I try to assimilate them and piece them together.”

Hobbs said he got the idea for the book when he was 22 or 23, when he spent much of his time walking around New York City with his older brother, “drinking a lot of beer and shooting the breeze.” A discussion about his brother’s recent breakup gave Hobbs the central idea for “The Tourists.”

“We were talking about how the worst thing you can do in a relationship is try to change another person,” Hobbs said. “The book is based on the fundamental question of whether you can or not.”

Hobbs said his characters’ fluid sexual orientations and attempts to change the sexuality of others were metaphors for this concept. The characters in the book all experiment with sexuality: a gay man seduces straight men, a woman seduces a gay man. Experimentation and confused emotions run thickly through the novel.

The book’s characters have difficulty growing up and moving past their time at Yale, and Hobbs said the transition was at times difficult for him as well.

“I find it very hard to tell people I went to Yale because they have certain assumptions about you,” Hobbs said. “They think you’re probably smart and probably wealthy, although that’s less and less the case because of financial aid.”

He said the insulated, small community at Yale also makes the transition jarring.

Hobbs, a Piersonite, was an English major and track runner at Yale, as is the novel’s narrator. He spent three years after graduation working for the African Rainforest Conservancy, a nonprofit grassroots reforesting organization in Tanzania. He said he liked the job because it was for a good cause and gave him time to work on his novels.

Now Hobbs focuses on his writing, but he said he treats it like any job.

“I sit there all day and figure that 90 percent of what I’m writing is total crap, and just hope 10 percent makes it to a book someday,” he said.

He compared the dedication needed to be a good writer to that of a good runner.

“Kind of like track, your talent isn’t defined by how well you do when you feel great and you’re running fast,” he said. “It’s defined by how fast you can run when you feel really crappy and still have to go do it. There are days when the writing is going well and others when you feel listless but just have to put in the man-hours.”

Hobbs credited the writing classes he took at Yale for teaching him this work ethic, and said he learned to make it part of his course load. Novelist and writing instructor John Crowley was his favorite professor at the University, Hobbs said.

And Crowley said the liking was mutual.

“He was really smart and kind and unpretentious,” Crowley said. “It was a real treat to work with him.”

Yale English professor William Deresiewicz said that producing a novel before the age of 30 is very challenging, which is why it’s so rare.

“It takes about about 10 years to get good at anything, no matter how talented you are,” Deresiewicz said. “And writing novels requires the wisdom of experience.”

“The Tourists” may not be the most comforting reading material for graduating seniors, but it is certainly an intriguing, skillfully written exploration of the transition from Yale into the complicated world beyond.

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