They say a writer is supposed to write what they know. Ted McDermott certainly knows what it is like to be a creative writing graduate student in Missoula. His debut novel, “The Minor Outsider,” explores the broad questions of young adulthood. It is a novel that slowly draws in the reader. McDermott looks at questions of youth, love and mortality in a particularly nuanced manner.
The novel is set in Missoula and place is surprisingly well described. Missoula is familiar. As it reads, people who know the town will recognize places without too much consideration. But, unlike experiences with other novels written in places that are known to the reader, McDermott presents Missoula well and honestly, without the feeling of trying too hard to make it a “Missoula novel.” Missoula, as represented in “The Minor Outsider,” is distinctly itself, while it also could be any other small college town in the West. Bars and mountains, bakeries and college apartments will be as familiar to someone who doesn’t know Missoula. Missoulians simply will be able to imagine the exact location McDermott is describing.
The story centers around Ed, the narrator, and his group of cohorts in the creative writing graduate program at the University of Montana. They are typical young adult creative types. We rarely experience them doing actual writing. This is a story more about young adulthood as a tender, yet frustrating experience, rather than a story about writing and writers themselves.
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Ed is fatalistic and self-absorbed, in a way that is common amongst his set. He judges his cohorts, his friends, but recognizes that they are also judging him back. Somehow, through his many faults and negative personality traits, we are sympathetic to him. This sympathy is encouraged as the reader finds that Ed has a possibly cancerous lump on his arm, something he is unsuccessfully attempting to ignore but is sure will be the death of him.
Ed falls quickly in amour with a first-year student, Taylor. She is another complex character who, on the outside, looks like the girl next door. We soon discover that she has a much more complex history, including a childhood in a failed commune and slightly outlandish stories about her life that makes the reader question her reliability as a witness. When Taylor becomes pregnant and Ed acquiesces to go to the doctor about the lump in his arm, the story shifts from the seemingly trivial drama of young adults to much more concrete life problems. This juxtaposition is what makes this novel more than another fatalistic anecdote about hip young adults.
With “The Minor Outsider,” McDermott has written a novel that is raw, yet refined. The characters are full of contradictions, absurdities, cynicism and affection. While flawed, the characters are relatable and engaging. Their stories and experiences drive the plot with a simple ease. He has written a story that many readers will know, or at the very least, be familiar with. Essentially, McDermott has successfully captured a glimpse of what it is like to be a young, privileged, creative type in small-town America.