Stainer by Iolanthe Woulff follows the life of Ben Steiner, a precocious but terminally uncool college student living in 1970’s New York City. Beginning on his 21st birthday, he meets the girl of his dreams, as well as the dynamic P.T. Deighland who’s a magnetic presence but doesn’t always have Ben’s interests at heart. As Ben awakens to new experiences, and struggles with breaking free from his conservative upbringing, his desire for acceptance may just end up being his downfall.
Though the cover might suggest that this is a political novel, this is a true coming of age novel – not just for Ben, but for the country itself, as the 70s play an important part in Ben’s sense of displacement during the “Me Decade.” Each character is expertly drawn by Woulff, to the point where characters’ actions are exasperating, in the way that many of us were when we were young. Ben may not be the most dynamic person, but this is a dynamic portrayal.
It has to be mentioned that this book has had a very interesting trajectory, as Woulff lays out in her preface. First written in the 70s, when Woulff went by “Nate,” she transitioned to a woman and then rewrote the earlier work with this new perspective. She says that readers can “disregard” the preface, but it paints the novel in a fascinating light. What it does is give Ben’s narrative the flavor of a memoir – not so much a “period novel,” as a partly non-fictional account of a time and place, as well as mistakes Woulff may have made herself.
As a literary novel, Stainer might lack the heady intellectual lyricism of Philip Roth, but Woulff is an incisive observer of the outsider status of American Jews, and holds nothing back about emerging sexuality in the vein of Roth’s Zuckerman. A worthy project for Woulff to have revisited, Stainer is an entertaining and keenly-observed novel.