IF A NOVEL about heavily pharmaceuticalized Princeton students banding together amid apocalyptic climate change — including weathering a 10-day, four-foot blizzard that spans northeastern America and kills 500 — feels a little too close for comfort, well, that’s the point. A tome that begins with, “Even Hitler was on meth. Google it,” isn’t interested with trifling in marginal subtleties.
Adam Nemett’s debut novel, We Can Save Us All, is Fight Club by way of Don DeLillo with a side of Pynchon, and addresses the undeniable spiraling of real-world climate change. Nemett, a graduate of Princeton himself, is an established director; his 2005 film The Instrument was called by LA Weekly “damn near unclassifiable.” In the best possible way, so is his debut novel.
In the near future, 2021 to be exact, China has cashed in on US bonds and the dollar has plummeted. Storms are destroying towns, cities, and coastlines with increasing frequency. It pours torrentially in August, on college move-in day, in New Jersey. Despite the urban legend that Twinkies were imperishable, Hostess has gone belly-up.
In the wake of it all, protagonist David Fuffman, a meek Thoreau-obsessed economics student at Princeton, whose parents incessantly compare to Superman (even the epigraph is a snippet from Superman III), is adrift. He’s been exiled from campus, for reasons that eventually become clear, and is desperate to find a place for him and his treasure trove of books to live. He meets Mathias Blue, a drug-peddling trust funder and purveyor of an off-campus incubator called The Egg, who welcomes him with open arms. David is drawn to Mathias in the same way Palahniuk’s narrator was to Tyler Durden: he was the man he’d always longed to be but couldn’t.
Moth meet flame: “Mathias knew [carpentry] and other manly things David now felt a dire need to learn,” the narrator notes when David walks upon Mathias chopping tree branches. “David was okay at hanging shelves or assembling IKEA furniture, but he wanted to understand electricity and plumbing and other household guts no one ever taught him.” Instead, David buried his head in books, trying to be the poster child his parents expected.
Time is the crux of the issue. In We Can Save Us All, scholars have posited that time, that nebulous notion itself, is shrinking. There’s less of it and it’s moving quicker than it should. Nemett wonderfully employs what worked for Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven: the terrifying disaster flick is ubiquitous, cities crumbling to dust in an instant — the End of Days is gut-wrenching when it’s gradual, a faucet dripping toward a crescendo.
If you’re confused, that’s understandable; in the postmodern We Can Save Us All, time is both malleable and a plot device. When David begins to take a drug called Zeronol , which he notes slows time, hoping to reclaim some of what’s been lost, he experiences flashbacks and disengages from the present, thus allowing Nemett artistic license to jump around plot-wise, leaving details unturned until the moment presents itself.
The device, like other portions of We Can Save Us All, treads a fine line between clever and awkward. On the one hand, Princeton students snorting cocaine through Wawa receipts is riotous; somewhere, F. Scott Fitzgerald is seething. On the other, a character who exclaims, “Fuck my balls with a wood-chipper!” seems unlikely to follow with “Heavens to Betsy.”
Though, notably, Nemett deserves commendation for writing with poignancy about the toll that college takes on mental health. Sharp lines like “[i]mpending doom is the best advertising” and “[i]f national disasters were ratings gold, cosmic doomsday scenarios were platinum” leap from the page, punctuated with avant-garde cultural references to Buckminster Fuller and Andy Goldsworthy. But there’s also the shaky handling of a campus rape — kudos to Nemett for allowing his characters the space to realistically react to a tragedy now unfortunately common in our culture. But to introduce the victim in an early chapter as being “known for her formidable breasts,” having David both sneak up behind her in a grocery store (despite soon revealing that, weeks earlier, he’d witnessed her assault) and wonder, in a flashback, whether or not bed stains were dried semen … only to describe her brutal rape mere chapters later? Uncomfortable, at best.
Ironically, the most intriguing character in this novel steeped in the pursuit of masculinity is a woman: Haley Roth. Haley is an against-type drug kingpin who went to the private school in David’s hometown of Pikesville, Maryland. Haley, a vivacious blonde, flits from altered state to altered state, seemingly perpetually in flight. When she, too, gets into Princeton, David, recovering from a breakup coupled by the revelation of infidelity, feels a flicker of fate. (A real-world stat: Of 35,370 global applicants for Princeton’s Class of 2022, only 1,346 enrolled, which amounts to less than four percent. What are the odds of two of those 1,346 admissions being from the same Maryland suburb?)
Much of the early part of the novel deals with David’s desire to become someone resembling Mathias: a headstrong, independent, bullish leader. But interestingly enough, Haley exhibits as many (if not more) of those qualities than Mathias. Amid chapters rife with testosterone-drenched coeds ribbing each other over still owning their virginity, Haley is a summer breeze — albeit a heavily medicated one.
When David moves into The Egg, the plot lurches forward rapidly. Along with a handful of other Princeton dormitory castoffs, David and Mathias form the USV, or the Unnamed Supersquadron of Vigilantes, donning costumes and helping those affected by the deadly climate change, quickly amassing a cult following.
Despite the choppy USV plot line, the final third act of We Can Save Us All is as fast-paced as it is dark. And rightfully so: we’re dealing with the End of Days, after all. And for all its plaudits and its perceived faults, the book is undeniably original and an utterly commendable first novel.
Early on in the book, David poses a Walden quote as a question to Mathias: “Is it possible to combine the hardiness of savages with the intellectualness of the civilized man?” Mathias responds, unequivocally, “The answer is yes. […] Yes, it is possible.” Is it possible to be both incredibly satisfied by a sharp, enticing, and well-written debut, yet also long for it to have been so much more? It would seem so. But Nemett is an undeniable talent with a unique voice. And at its core, We Can Save Us All is a warning to heed.
 Zeranol, in our world, is synthetic nonsteroidal estrogen, approved for livestock. Due to its anabolic effects, it’s banned by the WADA for humans.