Cannibals in Love by Mike Roberts

Cannibals in Love BY Mike Roberts. FSG Originals. . $16.
The cover of Cannibals in Love

From the first line in his debut novel, “My father said I was living in his house persona non grata and that I needed to find myself a job,” Mike Roberts casually dissolves into myth—a kind of millennial Charon come to guide his reader through a post-9/11 white-American-male version of the River Styx. The book, broken into eighteen parts, is an episodic tour of contemporary America, characterized by random violence, terrible jobs, and madness. It certainly seems like hell. Still, the narrator, our Virgil (although in this case our guide is named Mike, like the author), practically offers readers a can of malt liquor, suggesting we get comfortable and encouraging us to gulp down the increasingly complicated storyline, which ranges from pale to murky.

The stories are set during the narrator’s twenties in various cities. Occasionally a news event will help date the story. In the first chapter, a college-age Mike has landed a summer temp gig counting lampposts in his native Lockport, NY (Cannibals often presents its nonsensical situations with comic nonchalance). His older co-worker, Don, convinces him to play hooky one day at the OTB parlour. Here, the otherwise lowly Don holds a position of considerable esteem among the daytime gambling community. For Mike, the event morphs from innocent hijinks to a Munchian scream in the course of a few beers.

By the second chapter, Mike has moved to Washington DC, away from all that. He later finds new employment as a house painter, working beneath the October sun during the infamous Beltway sniper attacks. He begins dating an idealized tomboy, Lauren, who dumps him to focus on her friendship with their mutual friend, Cokie.

Mike moves to New York, gets in a traumatic drunken bicycle accident, then ends up back in DC. Eccentric friends and girlfriends come and go and come back. Mike forms a ridiculous experimental band with his next door neighbor, Lane, but they break up right before they’re signed by the legendary real-life musician and record label owner Ian Mackaye. Mike and Lauren continue to break up and reconcile. A lot. And through all their drama, Roberts catalogues her distinctive qualities with the insight only time can offer. He is good at writing women, at least from a man’s perspective.

We were out at a bar one night when she put her arms around my neck sweetly. “I want you to kiss me,” she said mischievously.


“See that guy over my shoulder, watching us? He comes into my coffee shop every morning and stalks me there for hours. He needs a bigger hint. I want him to see you kiss me.”

I smiled at her and leaned away slightly. “No,” I said.

Lauren laughed. Rebuffed. She squeezed my hand and danced away, into the crowd. She knew that I was watching her, terrified that she would go in search of Lane.

Like his relationship with Lauren, Mike’s parties, jobs, and personal projects keep boiling toward bacchanalian catharsis, only to wash out on the final paragraph of each chapter, when suddenly all that’s left is the skeleton of failure, and maybe with it a half understood lesson. The post-9/11 era is bleak for a sensitive and creative (Mike wants to write, duh) yet directionless young adult. Expectations of a successful artistic future have been dashed by political and economic conspiracy.

One solution to this problem is to try to have as much fun as possible. Hedonism is the apparent philosophy of Cannibals in Love in its first six chapters. Mike is a gifted beery storyteller. After Lane’s house is burgled, Mike regales us with a discovery: Lane’s mattress has mysteriously ended up in the backyard. This is how the criminal escaped, they realize. After dragging the mattress back upstairs and basking in mutual astonishment, Mike turns to his friend: “‘Should we try it?’ I asked. Lane nodded solemnly. ‘We have to.’”

There are also points, typically reserved for final paragraphs a la Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, where Mike staggers briefly into worlds of genuine transcendence, revealing in his wounded palms some objective treasure pilfered from the drunken tombs. In the funniest chapter of the book, he’s hired as a nanny to the sociopathic thirteen-year-old Avi, son of well-meaning but inept liberal parents in Portland, Oregon. His plan to treat the friendless brat with total indifference inevitably backfires. Avi attempts an escape and the reader is left with this glowing ember: “Avi skittered blindly into the street, between parked cars, desperately trying to join the crowd of walkers. He was pretending he was on his own out here. Pretending he was set loose in the city. Pretending he was free.”

There are flaws, however. First of all, Roberts’s musings can be overexplained and exhausting:

There was a killer on the loose. These are the plots of horror films. Or crime thrillers. Or just some bad buddy-cop movie. We didn’t know what was going on, which is different than being surprised by it. We had grown accustomed to a world of sudden, randomized death. Literally anything might happen next.

He can also be snotty in a way that reads more vengeful than humorous. Here’s his description of an encounter with a TSA agent, shortly after the Twin Towers fell: “I barely protested when she moved to throw the wrench away. I stood still as she waved her magnetic wand over me one more time. And finally, when she was satisfied, she nodded, and I thanked her for letting me fly in spite of my crimes against National Security.”

This kind of thing reminded me of the worst aspects of Noah Cicero’s The Human War, another book I much enjoyed but occasionally found annoying, and which was also written from the perspective of a smart working-class white male meandering the early aughts. Cicero was writing that book in present tense when he really was in his early twenties. The impact felt more genuine, thus forgivable, from a twenty-two-year-old in 2003 than it does coming from Roberts, who’s had more than a decade to reflect.

All the drinking, fighting, and sleeping around are great fun for a while. But eventually, Roberts’s treatment of Mike’s frivolity, simultaneously serious and winking, grows tiresome. For me, this happened around the hundredth page. Here, I began to write off Cannibals in Love as a charming beach read for educated post-punks.

But I suggest would-be readers persevere another twenty-two pages or so. In the seventh chapter, “Self-Portraits in Disguise,” Roberts sets up his sleight-of-hand trick. An ingenious performance in folding form over content that almost makes up for the novel’s first half.

Mike and Lauren are in New York. He has to deal with an ambulance fee from the previously mentioned bicycle accident. We’re not sure how many years have passed since the crash, but it’s obviously been several. The couple are staying with Lauren’s truly awful sister, whose presence creates both solidarity and tension between them. The sisters get in a fight. The couple takes MDMA for the first time on the bus back to DC and Mike realizes he’s in love with Lauren, for real. It’s a hard thing for him to articulate because of the synthetic love synergizing with the authentic feeling.

Then they are in Paris. It’s New Years Eve, under the Eiffel Tower.A fight breaks out between a mass of drunken men and the police. The cops fire tear gas. In a push to flee the crowd, the couple encounters a frightened young Israeli woman on holiday. Lauren wants to ignore her. Mike wants to help her but loses her in the crowd. By the end of the chapter, he and Lauren have fought and made up via insults hurled toward a buffoonish Australian backpacker. “We held each other up in the street, just laughing. Everything would be all right if I could just keep Lauren laughing, I thought.” Alas, the suffering is still there once the laughter subsides. For the first time the reader really feels the pain. Feels it because Mike feels it. The old wounds have reopened. They are becoming infected.

Over the second half of the novel, he attempts to flee trouble after trouble by moving to new cities, getting new jobs, drinks, drugs, friends, and girlfriends. It’s just not cute anymore. He’s getting older and his past is catching up with him. Lauren has a baby with someone else now. Lane has become a dad with the only woman who could possibly tolerate his shenanigans. Meanwhile, Mike bides his time on their living-room sofa. He sees himself in a twenty-six-year-old acquaintance who winds up dead after a night of heavy drinking.

Here it is in deft expression: When liberation is inverted and all those roads less traveled start to look the same. As I know from personal experience, this is a fairly universal moment of reckoning for sensitive but aimless white American men in their twenties. That’s obvious enough. White male writers in particular have been feeding off this kind of thing since Kerouac. Hemingway. Dostoyevsky. Hell...Saint Augustine. Since whenever it started and whoever started it, there’s been a long line of giants playing this game, and like each of them, Roberts must navigate Mike’s escape from it. This Hades of cliché.

Early in Cannibals in Love, there is a meta novel. Mike refers to A Cattle, a Crack-Up for the first time on page 88, from the back of an ambulance. The narrative, we’re told, concerns the dairy farmer August Caffrey, whose cows cause him to suffer a strange psychosomatic illness. It does not sound like a great book.

Throughout his twenties, the reader comes to understand, Mike devoted considerable time to researching the nuances of Midwestern animal husbandry whilst scrawling away at what he seriously believed would be the next Great American Novel. By the end of Cannibals in Love, all of his half-learned lessons have congealed, forcing him to see the truth. A Cattle, a Crack-Up is not a brilliant four hundred-page book, but it makes a pretty good short story. Fortunately, the time he has wasted on it was not entirely in vain. Once the short story is complete, he can finally begin writing his real novel and embrace his future. With that, the myth evaporates. Mike reemerges, a much realer version of himself.

John Farley is a writer from Baltimore.