Steven Rowley's 'The Celebrants'

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday September 19, 2023
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author Steven Rowley
author Steven Rowley

Billed as a "Big Chill" for our times, the lackluster "The Celebrants" is the latest fiction from the gay bestselling author Steven Rowley following his "The Editor" and "Guncle" feelgood books.

Rowley cleverly has taken the "Big Chill" 1983 film premise —a group of baby boomers who met at the University of Michigan reunite 15 years later after their friend Alex commits suicide— and refashioned it for the Gen X crowd, just in time for their mid-life crises. The themes of the disappointments and tribulations of adulthood, the healing power of friendship, and the disorientation of death are perennial, always worth updating. If only this novel was as exhilarating as its source material.

We have a group of six best friends attending Berkeley as transfer students in 1995: Jordan, Jordy, Naomi, Craig, Marielle, and Alec (as opposed to Alex). Party monster Alec dies of a drug overdose at age 22 right before graduation. Grief-stricken Marielle (on-and-off again lover of Alec) suggests they make a pact to hold funerals for each other so they can celebrate their lives, to say all the things they love about the person while they're still alive to hear it. Each character gets only one funeral to be held whenever they need it most.

We are told within the first ten pages that Jordan's cancer has metastasized with a terminal prognosis and in short chapters throughout the book, we will return to the Jordans (the same name is annoying, though to differentiate, there's Jordy, the athletic one from Chile) while they wait for the doctor at the hospital.

The next chapters focus on the various characters and their funerals. The first occurs in 2013 when Marielle requests a funeral after her bitter divorce from Max when her daughter Mia is a teenager, because she feels like a failure and she needs to be reminded of all she has to live for.

They meet at a luxurious house at Big Sur. The friends have not kept in touch in the 20 years post-graduation, drifting apart. The Jordans, who starting dating right after Alec's death, are now a married couple who jointly run a public relations business. Craig is a successful art gallerist. Naomi is an executive at a huge music label.

In 2016, Naomi will call for her funeral after her aloof parents die in a plane crash. She wants it held in Mexico and she books the group on a skydiving trip. Then Craig in 2018, having pleaded guilty for art fraud and facing prison time, is surprised when the group shows up to hold his funeral in New York, involving the friends taking mushrooms prior to voyaging on a cruise around the city.

Finally, we return to Sur la Vie for Jordan's funeral in San Francisco so his partner Jordy can take part in an Alcatraz swimming race in the Bay. Throughout, Alec is hauntingly present for them, whether it be contacting him via a Ouija board or a shocking revelation concerning him, finally disclosed decades later.

Positively, the plot moves at a well-clipped pace with various amusing entertaining intervals (the hilarious skydive is the book's highlight). Despite its contrivance, the living funeral idea is compassionately executed, with periodic touching, heartbreaking moments.

Also, a central LGBTQ theme of chosen family anchors the narrative, recognizing the importance of lifelong friends who can honestly help us recall who we are, the truth about ourselves however unwelcome or difficult. We're told relationships remain central over work, especially when we feel overwhelmed or busy, and it's often life's small moments that are most instructive. "None of them would leave this Earth without knowing that they were loved."

The book could've been overly maudlin, but instead such heavy topics as suicide, drug abuse, terminal illness, and death are faced head on, capturing the lighthearted moments during these dire situations.

And yet somehow, the book feels hollow, never quite grabbing the reader in a way Rowley's previous stories achieved. In the two preceding novels of Rowley's I read, they consisted of well-developed, absorbing characters, even an invigorated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in "The Editor."

However, that's not true for "The Celebrants." Here the characters seem flat and unconvincing, almost interchangeable. The gay Jordans, central to the book, seem undistinguishable from each other, as bland as their straight friends. We learn little about how they met, why they decided to couple, and scant details about their lives in the intervening years.

And it wasn't until halfway through the book that I began to discern some discriminating features about the other characters, aside from the fact they're all emotional messes. They don't even seem that close, arguing whenever they get together, with tenuous connections at best. The only attribute they seem to share besides a university is they're all privileged, having the money to execute these funereal fantasies.

The book reads like a movie script, complete with exotic locales and unexciting dialogue, though there are witty intervals with lots of pop cultural references. This is not exactly a surprise since Rowley began his career as a screenwriter and all his previous books have been optioned by Hollywood.

But for all its faults, the book is engaging, occasionally full of heart, the kind of novel you could finish on a long plane ride or a few days on vacation. It certainly makes no demands on the reader and won't be winning any literary prizes.

Rowley writes, "To think about life is to contemplate death — it's what makes living so valuable. You only live once. But if you do it right, once is more than enough."

While spouting these cliché new age aphorisms, we could do worse than being reminded to live life to its fullest, supported and comforted by one's chosen friends. Or you can wait for the inevitable movie.

'The Celebrants' by Steven Rowley. Putnam/Random House, $28.

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