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on April 27, 2010 :
"Arguing with Henry" and "Greenberg" are both works with 40-year-old narcissistic white male protagonists who drink to assuage their existential angst. "Arguing" is a book by Niall Hunter; "Greenberg" is a film by Noah Baumbach. While Ben Stiller's performance in the film is noteworthy, the movie itself drags. Greenberg is a man of the Eighties. He has fallen off the train of popular culture, except when an opportunity for "hooking up" with a woman he barely knows presents itself; then he is quite up-to-date. I get the symbolism of the dog with autoimmune disease and the distorted animal in the pool; he is self-sabotaging and his goals and desires warped. But so what?
It was quite a surprise to download this book, with its crude cover illustration, and find myself immediately drawn into the story of its parallel protagonist, Henry Flanagan. Married to a woman who finds more and more reasons to be away, having an affair with a younger woman with a need to settle down that is manifested by a wandering eye, Henry drinks and smokes his way through life, enfeebled with narcissism. The book is replete with scenes of drinking, screwing, shitting, and vomiting. Did I mention there is a lot of drinking? Dried secretions and body odors are lovingly described in a way that, if just a little more effusive, would qualify as McCarthyesque. The prose is deft and hilarious; it limns an Ireland struggling to enter the 21st Century, while obviously looking over its shoulder at the Catholic Church. The baggage of its estimable literary tradition is another burden to anyone with the slightest inclination towards creativity. Henry is on the outs with a columnist manque of his own age, as well as with a younger entertainment tycoon his lover takes a fancy to, one of a handful of twentysomethings he finds himself slyly analyzing; Hunter somehow is able to convey the idea of Henry's genuineness outshining the flash of the phonies.
To the bemused chagrin of us nose-to-the-grindstone types, Henry, like many self-absorbed slobs, is able to function, even excel, in his job. I suppose it stems from his rubbing elbows with what he sees as the lowest cultural common denominator, thus knowing his audience. There is a hidden nugget of genuineness within him that makes his actions believable. Conversely, Roger Greenberg, recently out of a psychiatric facility, protests that "it doesn't define me," all the while making choices and behaving towards women in a way that just screams "crazy."
I would be remiss if I did not mention that this self-published one-dollar book is beautifully edited, with typos I can count on the fingers of one hand, giving lie to the notion that POD means "sloppy." Edit, proofread, and edit some more, my friends!
If you're a huge fan of Ben Stiller, by all means go out and see the movie; he is excellent in it. But if you don't want to see him with a bad brown dye job and you like a little dry humor with your narcissism, skip the film and read "Arguing with Henry."
(reviewed the day of purchase)