Richard is lonely and who can blame him. Around him, other gay New Yorkers seem to effortlessly glide through an instagram-ready world of expensive restaurants, Fire Island beaches, gym-toned bodies and orgiastic sex.
He’s stuck in a rut, suffers from academic paralysis, hates his roommate, and app-enabled hook-ups are showing diminishing returns. It’s a brand of millennial angst so common as to render his low-grade depression invisible, even to himself. Richard has a lot going for him, just not self-awareness.
So when our protagonist meets not one but two individuals with the potential to rescue him from himself, we can’t help but root for him, at least at first. Blake is a lawyer who looks like he could be a good match for Richard, not least because he actually likes him. Anne is also a lonely academic, who agrees to write his papers in exchange for a companionship that eventually turns into something more intimate.
After years of solitude, it’s hard to resent Richard for pursuing both options simultaneously, stringing along two people who probably deserve better. It’s not easy being broke in Brooklyn. After years of going dutch, he’d finally found someone to pay the metaphorical cheque.
In the end, Richard’s self-delusion, narcissism and indecisiveness are no match for Blake and Anne’s goodwill. In a masterful crescendo of anxiety, the situation comes to a head and the reader has no choice but to turn on our sympathetic hero.
The harder it was to like Richard, the more I felt compelled to understand why. I quickly realised two things that convinced me to stick around.
Firstly, Richard is a product of his late-capitalism surface-obsessed environment, in a city where every relationship seems transactional. James Gregor’s novel is filled with sharp observational insights into a society that discourages any kind of healthy inner-life.
Secondly, Richard holds up a mirror to the reader, and I could see some of my own flaws reflected there (and I’m not talking about attractive flaws either). Unmoored, Richard moves through life without logic or planning. He’s unable to recognize that this is true of most people, whatever their curated social media profiles might advertise.
New York City has grown up, left its adolescent excesses behind as it gentrified into middle-of-the-road consumerist adulthood (a land of “solar-powered taco stands” and “metallurgically bitter coffee”). Richard is unable to do the same, late to grasp that coming out is only half the battle (especially in a world where being gay fails to raise an eyebrow), taking responsibility for oneself is much, much harder.
Going Dutch is a skillful portrait of a life in stasis, of a man in a permanent state of deferral. Many will be put off by the unlikable Richard. It’s a shame because Gregor James has created a complex and revealing character whose meandering journey holds the key to understanding a much wider malaise. That the ride is uncomfortable is precisely the point.