Book Review: “congratulations?”

I suppose I was inclined not to like congratulations? once I saw the title.  Why is the title in lowercase?  Is this a T.S. Eliot poem?  Why is there punctuation?  Is this from the same school as the band fun., which throws in a punctuation mark at the end for no discernible reason?  Man, I hate that “We Are Young” song.

I also currently sound like Clint Eastwood.

Anyway, those are all trivial and fake reasons to not like a novel, and thankfully, none of them apply to congratulations?.  (Though that question mark/period combo does look silly.)  From first-time novelist and Syracuse University graduate Scott Spinelli (more on him below), congratulations? is an honest and entertaining look at college life.  There’s no grand, school-saving event here.  There’s no perfect hero.  There’s just a story – fictional, though, I’d guess, strongly based on reality – that actually tells the truth about going to college, not some wild, debauchery-filled, partying festival.  And it’s consistently funny.  Imagine that.

congratulations? is the story of Nick Alexander, a typical college senior at S.U.  By that, I mean his three favorite things are women, alcohol and sports, though not necessarily in that order.  (Although, maybe in that order.)  Nick’s got a few things on his plate as graduation day nears: future job prospects, female prospects and a looming comedy show at the end of the year.  And congratulations? is basically about the balance between Nick’s big-picture scenario and the day-to-day musings of his college life.  Because of this, the novel takes a little while to find its footing.  We’re not really sure what the angle is, per se, or why we want to be invested in this character.  But don’t worry – we’ll figure that out soon enough.

As the semester goes along, we learn about Nick’s roommates, his friends and one particularly snarky professor.  Characters are woven in seamlessly, with flashbacks and details fitting into the novel well.  We can all find someone to identify with in congratulations?, which cuts once again to the novel’s biggest strength: it’s real.  College is often fictionally portrayed as a place where only bespectacled nerds do work, jocks walk around in tight shirts and red Solo cups all day and everyone’s involved in a campus-wide orgy.  Perhaps I just missed the boat on this, but that’s not exactly how it works, and Spinelli understands this.  There’s not a page of congratulations? that feels anything but real.  It may as well read as hilarious nonfiction.

And oh, by the way, it is hilarious.  Spinelli’s a stand-up comedian in reality, and so is our constantly-observing protagonist.  Sure, you’ve all heard the neurotic comedian shtick before, but that doesn’t make the writing in congratulations? any weaker.  I typically enjoy comedy that’s based in reality rather than hyperbole, because the truth is funnier than anything else.  Spinelli finds humor in the most banal of situations and can turn any serious moment on its head at a moment’s notice.

Speaking of serious moments on heads, here’s a cat hat!

It’s that honesty policy that may be why congratulations? so often feels like nonfiction.  There are trips to Chuck’s and Delmonico’s and conversations with former Syracuse star Jonny Flynn that probably didn’t happen – but they’re real places and, in the case of Flynn, a real person.  (S.U. alums, in turn, will appreciate the novel even more.)  Sure, it’s a little odd at times to see them thrown into the midst of a fictional story, but it’s one way to make the story feel as real as possible.

The final year of college is supposed to be the best year of your life.  It certainly was for me, and it seems, based on our protagonists’s experience in congratulations?, it was for Spinelli.  Things may not always go as smoothly as planned, but it makes for one hell of a ride.  congratulations? captures that spirit perfectly and in an easily relatable way.  Here’s hoping Spinelli has some more great stories up his sleeve.

(Now, about that lowercase title…)

Grade: B+

Blog Disclaimer: I know Scott from Syracuse University, though we only overlapped by one year.  That being said, the thoughts above are my honest thoughts on the novel.  Yes, even with a ridiculous WordPress blog, I’d like to maintain integrity.

The one motto this blog lives by.

Additional Postscript: The novel is available here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/148001818X/ref=olp_product_details?ie=UTF8&me=&seller=

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