As a critic, it’s not hard to develop some level of contempt for the material you review. Books, movies, music—for every buried gem, there’s a mountain of garbage demanding your time but completely unworthy of your attention. Vegas native Andrew Kiraly knows the feeling. As former editor at both Las Vegas CityLife and the late Las Vegas Mercury, he’s written more than his share of music columns, features and profiles. Cut Kiraly, and he bleeds alt-weekly ink.
Ditto for Gabe Sack, the asshole protagonist of Kiraly’s debut novel, Crit (CityLife Books, $15). He writes an opinionated music column (“Le Connoisseur”) for Bang Bang, a Los Angeles-based magazine. Sack is young, but he’s already burned out. He’s become the kind of critic who skewers bands without actually listening to their music, preferring to judge them based solely on his uninformed first impressions. As a result, he gets punched in the face a lot. (This is the kind of running gag, fueled by scotch and self-loathing, that’s supposed to make us feel something for this sad, empty Sack, but it just doesn’t work, despite Kiraly’s best intentions.) Gabe tenders his resignation, but not before accepting one last assignment: travel to Las Vegas and hunt down Hambert Larkin, a little-known lounge singer so godawful he’s got to be seen to be believed. Sack has written about Larkin before, and his return trip to Sin City sends readers a ham-fisted signal that the whole point of this journey—the whole point of Crit, really—is less about initial reviews (good, bad, indifferent) and more about reassessment.
Sack doesn’t make the trip solo. Along for the ride is Sack’s friend Staley (a record store employee, natch) and Darcy, Staley’s musician girlfriend who knows firsthand how it feels to be on the receiving end of one of Gabe’s vicious reviews. Darcy’s got a tough, punk exterior with a complicated—but woefully underdeveloped—backstory.
Crit is not all bad. Kiraly can write, and there’s no shortage of clever lines, but the novel felt forced to me, perhaps because it wants so desperately to say something serious, something profound. Kiraly’s obviously got some real insight and genuine love for the characters and industry he’s writing about, but the smart-alecky dialogue simply moves the story where it needs to go rather than ringing true. When Crit tries to make a point, it feels like an empty beer bottle hurled onstage from the back of the crowd.
Ultimately, Kiraly’s novel takes itself a little too seriously, not unlike the bands Sack delights in destroying. As a result, Crit reads more like “sophomore slump” than a winning “eponymous debut,” which is the kind of analogy Sack might appreciate.