On The Subway to Work with A Better Class of People by Robert Lopez

“There is a book in here I read every day. I start at the beginning and read on through till the end. Each time it is like I am reading it anew as I can never remember what the story is about. It’s almost like every day the book tells me a different story.” 

The magic in Robert Lopez’s body of work consists of the brief, little burst of lightning in a sentence, a phrase, a four-paragraph micro-story. While A Better Class of People (Dzanc, 2022) is Lopez’s fourth short novel, it is the first that takes his aptitude for tiny explosive momentums and turns them into a singular narrative. A Better Class Of People outshines his previous novels by achieving the ideals of his work in structure, execution, and pure dedication to the craft.

The unnamed narrator of the novel is a beehive of anxieties. He suffers from an infatuation with the American Idiom and the various anonymous characters he observes interacting with our society in his daily excursions on the subway, the street, and his relatively innocuous life save for a crime he may or may not commit when he finally finds his Esperanza. These secondary characters are not without their transgressions across what little serenity exists in our narrator’s world; in fact, most have no idea they are even characters in his life, save for the confused and somewhat irreverent dates he had with a woman he knows it won’t work with. We know it as well. A simple observation becomes a Freudian minefield. Our protagonist observes that he does not “like summer because the mothers of America are everywhere with bare legs and shoulders and toes all out in the open. I don’t like it because this is what it does to people…like me. We’re made to sit and watch the calamity instead of doing what we’re supposed to do out on the road, making music and memories we’ll struggle to recall for years to come.” It’s no wonder we struggle when we watch his one love interest navigate their relationship in a confusing and somewhat arbitrary manner; we pity this borderline savior-caretaker as she does whatever she can in her doomed situation to make this poor man happy. We similarly pity our confused, lonely narrator…. Even though, in a way, he is right. When the ‘American Dream’ is hardly on the line, engagement with anything seems to be reasonable, unless one is unable to engage. Then, what does one do besides suffer?

Essentially, Lopez has designed a familiar 21st-century Holden Caulfield or Humbert Humbert, albeit benign ones in A Better Class Of People. We empathize, our hearts bending toward forgiveness for his blinding confusion about the workings of the real world. It is easy to reflect on why we indulge in the social norms we find so challenging, especially when we simply want to exist in our own sphere of contentment. The most gorgeous element of the book’s nature is a concrete reflection of the more poisonous, manipulative elements of the society we live in. This is rightly the American culture that leads the most mentally vulnerable among us to the bizarre labyrinth of simple existence. Our culture is poisonous and manipulative, and those among us who thrive are often those who can poison and manipulate the best…or at least navigate it. But our narrator reflects that instinct within us that cannot seem to understand why we must do what we do. Somehow he manages in the clearest, most vulnerable way he can.

In Lopez’s hands, this character is treated with the dignity and respect deserved by our collective, existential confusion humming beneath our ribcages. He commutes in the city. He doesn’t rape or commit any crimes. His thirst isn’t for the mass shootings of our contemporary culture. His only true torture is his mediocre loneliness of thought and the existence he indulges in for a tad over a hundred engaging, breezy pages.

My favorite piece in the novel, by far, was the indictment present in “To Grow Old In America.” In two brief pages, Lopez perfectly encapsulates the terror of the pointlessness of American existentialism and entitlement. Our protagonist transforms from unreliable to brotherly, observing that, “by the time I’m old the weather will be unbearably hot or cold because it’s an ice age and the fascists will regain power and there’ll be no more social security and everyone will have to work until they drop dead at their desks. God knows what will happen to what’s left of America but he probably won’t have to spend time blessing it anymore. People might realize by then that God never did bless America in the first place, that they’ve been singing the wrong song for years.” A dire Caulfieldian reflection on American life, to be sure, but just one of many refrains that drive the audience’s increasing personal connection to a narrator trapped in the fog of his mind. If his fog is so honest, what prevents everyone else from such a vibrant expression? The possibility that everyone hides it isn’t nearly as terrifying as to consider nobody thinks of it at all. I would love to say this was a nihilistic stance brought on by the American political environment in power at the time it was written…but when I finished reading this in July of 2022, it feels like only the beginning of what our narrator, and Lopez, got right about our collective anxieties. Maybe the simple hope is that the majority of us are able to bury it as deeply as the narrator of Lopez’s incredible minimalist novel. It is, quite tragically clear, that isn’t the case at all.

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Garrett Zecker is a writer, actor, and teacher of writing, literature, and theatre. He holds an MA in English from Fitchburg State University and an MFA in Fiction from the Mountainview MFA. His fiction and nonfiction work has been featured in many publications, most recently Parhelion, Black Dandy, Porridge, and The New Guard. He is the co-founder of Quabbin Quills, a nonprofit foundation focused on literary publications, free writers workshops, and high school scholarships for writers in Central and Western Massachusetts. Learn more about Garrett at GarrettZecker.com and follow him on Twitter at @mrzecker

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