The debut novel (or novella, as somewhat grumpily conceded in the Author’s Note) from AlertNerd‘s Matt Springer, Unconventional is, according to the front cover’s helpful summary, “a tale of sex, booze, and geeks”…pretty much in that order. And as unappealing as a book filled with drunk, naked nerds might seem, Springer makes it work, thanks to his effortlessly conversational writing and a plot that actually has less to do with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings than it lets on.
The story follows a sci-fi-loving trio of longtime friends (Marty, Ron, and Ham — a nickname, short for Hammerhead, as in the minor Star Wars character) on their adventures through one weekend at the UnConvention, “Chicagoland’s number one sci-fi con,” working in plenty of basement-dwelling misfits in Jedi costumes while building toward a few life-changing decisions for the main characters. It’s a framework you’re probably overly familiar with — as you’ll be with Unconventional‘s habit of flashing back and forth between past and present in order to give the reader additional context — and pop metaculture has been drowning in geek heroes for years. At a fundamental level, the book is utterly ordinary, and it shouldn’t work as well as it does — but unlike most writers who dabble in geekdom, Springer actually has something to say, and instead of just presenting his characters as empty vessels for Klingon jokes, he uses them to deliver some trenchant, poignant messages about making the awkward transition into adulthood, and the nature of fandom in general.
Admittedly, Unconventional can be a little uneven, especially for a 133-page book. For one thing, although I’ve never personally been to a fan convention, I suspect the women who attend these things are generally not as hot and horny as the ones Springer describes — and along those same lines, I doubt many male congoers look like a young Harrison Ford, as Ron is described. After opening with one of the greatest first sentences in the history of fiction (“Luke Skywalker was just about to take a tumble into Jabba the Hutt’s Rancor pit when Theo got kicked in the balls”), the story stumbles a few times out of the gate, occasionally feeling like a fantasy about fantasy lovers — but like the Star Wars trilogy, Unconventional really comes into its own during the second act, laying the groundwork for a series of surprisingly sharp, well-written passages that manage to feel utterly believable in spite of their eloquence. Given that most of the book’s dialogue comes from the mouths of characters who wouldn’t think twice about spending premium prices for a mint condition action figure, that’s a pretty nimble feat. For instance, here’s a bit of back-and-forth between Ham and a girl who pipes up after hearing him rant about The Phantom Menace:
“I just think it’s a little bit sad for people to argue about what should happen with something they have no real control over,” she said. Ham’s face turned burning red at lightning speed and he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rising slightly. “I mean, if you don’t like it, why do you keep doing it? How many times have you seen The Phantom Menace, anyway?”
“That has nothing to do with it…” Ham’s voice was squeaking its way into astonishing new registers. This was bad.
“Come on,” she said, her eyes rolling behind her glasses. “How many times?”
“I saw it ten times at the theater,” Ham said. Ron glared up at him, mouthing the word “Stop…” over and over.
“Then I would say what you think doesn’t matter,” she said, standing up to leave. “George Lucas won.”
But it isn’t just the fanboy stuff Springer does so well. A number of pages later, as Ham is trying to work up the nerve to talk to a girl, he describes his nerves as “the tangle, the fire,” saying he “couldn’t machete his way through,” and plummets into dread as “the bored sitcom audience in his mind applauded dutifully as they made their big entrances.”
Matt Springer is an author who deserves to be read. But don’t take my word for it. Go pick up your own copy — either the free PDF version or the $9.97 paperback — and see for yourself. I don’t know what he’s got planned for his next book, but I’m eager to find out.