Cauchon's 'Nothing' Takes On The Despair of Working-Class 20-Somethings

Nothing (Two Dollar Radio), Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon’s debut novel, is an original, thrilling tale of a gritty small town about to be consumed by a raging wildfire. The story, alternately narrated by main characters Ruth and James, explores the despair of these two 20-somethings, both of whom, in just the early bloom of adulthood, feel their lives have already reached a dead-end.

One such example of this anguished mindset: When James is asked what we will do with his life, he answers, “But the only answer I got to Be what? Be who? was Nothing.” As the book’s title suggests, these characters feel like they are nothing and there’s nothing they can do to make their lives any better.

This hopelessness they cover with alcohol, cigarettes, pill, and parties. Ruth and James, in fact, meet under such circumstances. James, having discovered the man he thought was his father is not, has just come to town in search of his actual father and runs into Ruth and her friend Bridget at a party. There are reports of wildfire raging through Montana, but these 20-somethings don’t care. Like every other weekend, they smoke hookah and swallow pills that make everything go fuzzy. In reality, it’s all they can do — at least that’s how it feels to them. Ruth has tried to commit suicide before, and says things she “believes in suicide,” but she was even unsuccessful at that option of escape.

Cauchon deftly portrays the swirling milieu of this despair-filled lifestyle. Her prose has a moderate stream-of-consciousness effect; not so experimental that the book is unreadable, but just edgy and surreal enough to evoke this gritty substance-fueled lifestyle. In this way, Nothing feels like the descendent of the masterful (and widely recognized) short stories of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.

Cauchon’s subject is similar — she, like Johnson, is interested in the life of the lower-middle class — but her style shares some of the the dreamy, almost nonsensical narration. This was a smart choice on Cauchon’s part since the book wouldn’t have the same emotional weight if written in classically elegant language told by a removed omniscient narrator.

Because of this choice, however, the book’s plot — and there’s not much in the way of plot — is confused and jumbled, so readers who prefer a straightforward narrative might choose another book. The fire serves as the narrative’s catalysis. James arrives in town as the fire is spreading, and by the novel’s end, it is upon them. As the novel progresses, the smoke hangs thicker and thicker in the air, assaulting residents when they step outside.

But not even this can deter the town’s young from their collective downward spiral. Ruth’s best (and only) friend Bridget — a talkative, possessive, and unapproachably beautiful yet insecure girl who possesses “perfect lips” and “perfect tits” — throws an End of Times Party at the abandoned house. Fire rages around them, and it is there that the book’s major conflagration occurs. (Though Cauchon is much more subtle about this literary effect than this sentence suggests.)

The book’s ending is confusing and ambiguous, which may frustrate some, but this noteworthy debut novel is called Nothing, after all, so the reader shouldn’t expect to leave it knowing everything.

Image: Two Dollar Radio