No one is ever going to say that Chad Kultgen is a master wordsmith. His novels always strike me as fleshed out screenplays; very straight forward and direct, with little description or clever language. His characters are rarely anything greater than the sum of their quirks, they have no separation from each other in any way outside of what each of them enjoys. All of his characters have the same dedicated focus and they all act remarkably similar to each other, even if their ultimate goals are different. His previous novels, “Average American Male” and “The Lie” both exist in the “fratire” genre, where the focus tends to be male oriented and extremely graphic and sexual. The sex is extremely male oriented; aggressive and detail oriented, with an emphasis on male dominance. That’s not a negative quality, it just should be recognized because it can be upsetting to some people. “American Male” was an interesting take on a nameless narrator who aimlessly goes through his life, driven only by sex and video games. “The Lie” was more complex, with a legitimately interesting plot that concerned the college careers of three fairly unlikable characters.
“Men, Women and Children” is a little more restrained than Kultgen’s previous works. Sex is still a huge focus, but it doesn’t dominate the pages the way it did before. The more general focus rests in the way that the internet has the power to influence people. The internet is a powerful force for all of the characters in this book, of which there are a multitude (some might say a few too many). The internet brings about sexual fetishes, video games, paranoia, etc. All of the characters are eventually affected in some way by this technology, and Kultgen does a good job of examining how these changes are perceived by everyone involved.
And this is Chad Kultgens greatest strength. For all of his weaknesses as a novelistic writer, he has the ability to identify and isolate what a lot of people are feeling and thinking, even if they aren’t aware of it themselves. He has a fairly remarkable insight into a variety of ages and sexes and genders, and his explanation of how characters are reacting can sometimes be dead on. In particular, though perhaps not surprisingly, he is very tuned into the mindset of young people. He has a few sections in this novel where a boy and girl are both waiting for one to text the other, and both don’t want to be the first to do so, and both in turn are exactly wrong in their thinking about why the other hasn’t texted them yet. It sounds simple, but it’s such a relate-able moment, one that I’m sure every young relationship goes through.
On the other hand, some of the dialog between the male parents reads like Bad Screenwriting 101. The scenes with the three fathers together is some of the worst writing imaginable, with the dialog for these 40-somethings never moving past the level of 12 year olds.
And that’s the hit and miss aspect. For everything Kultgen does right, there’s a section immediately following where bad writing threatens to torpedo some legitimately interesting thoughts.