A coming-of-age tale set in 1975 New York during Tom Wolfe’s “Me Decade”, Stainer follows the misadventures of a naïve Jewish Columbia University student named Benjamin Steiner, who, on the night of his 21st birthday, meets not only the sweet girl of his dreams, a lovely young lady named Rebecca Glaser, but also an unprincipled drug-loving rogue from Princeton called P. T. Deighland. As the days pass, Ben’s immature inability to resist temptation and an overwhelming need to be “cool” gradually cause him to fall under Deighland’s malign influence until, at an impossibly glitzy Princeton party, he encounters and becomes spellbound by a ravishing but predatory high-fashion model named Anthea Montague.
When Rebecca returns from an unexpected overseas trip, Benjamin’s unreasoning jealousy over her friendship with another boy casts a shadow on their budding relationship. A series of rashly imprudent decisions abetted by Deighland and the model leave Ben feeling guilty and angry. At an ill-fated summer barbeque, he wrongly explodes at Rebecca and soon plunges headlong into a reckless self-destructive downward spiral, culminating in a horrific confrontation with Anthea Montague that brings his life crashing down in ruins.
Against the background of a vanished period in American history, Stainer offers a bittersweet nostalgic trip back to a less complex world, during a time of incautious excesses that, while deceptively fun and carefree, in due course forced many unwary youngsters like Benjamin Steiner to learn some necessary – but terribly painful – lessons about growing up.
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STAINER follows Ben Steiner, a Jewish Columbia undergrad who is a decent person but wishes to be “in” with the “in crowd.” What was the initial idea behind this story and how did that transform as you were writing the novel?
Since I wrote the book forty years ago, I must confess that I cannot precisely recollect what the initial idea was. I just sat down and started scribbling (longhand, on legal yellow sheets) and eventually the novel emerged. However, as I explain in my Author’s Preface, the manuscript was an overwritten mess. I was a complete amateur, and made every mistake in the book… (okay, that was a truly cringe-worthy pun.) But now that I think of it, I did have a vague notion that I wanted to somehow skewer an acquaintance of mine, and decided that the cleverest way to accomplish that would be to turn them into a rotten character in a book. Which I did… and no, I won’t tell you which character, but suffice it to say that nowadays my intended skeweree is rich, fulfilled, aging much better than I am, and utterly unaware of my –or my novel’s– existence. Which, all things considered, is exactly as it should be.
Of course, at a distance of four decades, I am now able to perceive things in the novel that weren’t apparent to me at the time I wrote it; by which I mean that there’s more than a trace of autobiographical heartbreak in the story. And I think we’ll leave it at that.
Ben goes through some strikingly personal conflicts throughout the book and his character is meticulously developed. How did you capture the thoughts and emotions of a 70’s Jewish teen?
Easy… I was a 70’s Jewish teen. Well, not technically… even though I was already in my mid-twenties when I wrote STAINER, my mindset remained that of an irresponsible teenage scamp, and I simply wrote prose in the same the way I spoke/ thought/lived; in other words, from the viewpoint of extremely arrested adolescence (ahem.) Luckily for me, it turned out that I had a knack for accurately capturing the mood and lingo of the times in my writing… who knew?
Ben meets P.T. Deighland, a wiseass from Princeton, who is clearly up to no good. What were the driving ideals behind the characters relationship throughout the story?
“Driving ideals”? Hmm… I have no clue, other than to suspect that the relationship between ‘bad-boy’ P.T. and ‘good-boy’ Ben somewhat reflected the two sides of my own slightly schizophrenic persona; which, in those days, remained more-or-less in a constant state of conflict. To all outward appearances I was definitely a good boy, but like many such young fellows, secretly wished that I had the nerve and coolness to behave like one of the bad boys. Because, after all, the bad boys always got the girls… didn’t they? But, like Ben, my efforts to attain bad-boy status were ultimately doomed to failure, and came at a heavy cost.
What is the next book that you are working on and when will it be available?
I have a new novel under way, and it’s as different from STAINER as STAINER is from SHE’S MY DAD. I can only write stand-alone novels; the mere thought of doing sequels or a series is a stupefying bore. For me, once a story is wrapped up, that’s the end of it, and then I’m off to build a new world, with new characters, new problems, new everything. It’s the only way I can stay interested enough to keep going.
As to when the new book will be available, who knows? All I can say is, stay tuned… I do believe it’s a pretty good yarn.
New York City, 1975: Decent-hearted but spoiled Jewish college kid Ben Steiner is naively possessed by an overwhelming desire to be cool. At a springtime party on the night of his twenty-first birthday, he meets two people: Rebecca Glaser, the longed-for sweet girl of his dreams, and P.T. Deighland, a beguilingly knavish wiseacre from Princeton. Seduced by Deighland’s bold irreverence while simultaneously succumbing to his own temptations, Ben makes a cascading series of unfortunate choices which not only threaten his budding relationship with Rebecca, but expose him to ruin at the hands of a ravishing but ruthless fashion model named Anthea Montague.
Against the background of a vanished period in American history, STAINER offers a bittersweet nostalgic trip back to a less complex world, during a time of incautious excesses that, while deceptively fun and carefree, in due course forced many unwary youngsters like Benjamin Steiner to learn some necessary –albeit painful– lessons about growing up.
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Stainer by Iolanthe Woulff truly lives up to being a novel of the “Me Decade”. Set in 1975, we follow Ben Steiner, a Jewish Columbia undergrad who at his core is a decent person but wishes to be “in” with the “in crowd.” On the night of his twenty-first birthday he attends a party that will change his life forever. He meets P.T. Deighland, a wiseass from Princeton, who is clearly up to no good, and Rebecca Glaser who he falls for immediately. His new-found friendship with Deighland and his own youthful temptations lead him to make escalating bad choices that may not only harm his budding romance with Rebecca, but expose this alternate life to the rest of the Jewish community. It is a classic journey of self-discovery, but one with a lightness of humor that keeps it from becoming too dismal.
Woulff does a wonderful job with blending the scenery of 70’s New York City with the strikingly personal conflict of Ben Steiner. The cultural tropes of the Jewish community come into full play and provide the initial conflict of the individual strikes out away from the old traditions of his culture. The fact that Ben lives in a converted residence hall with other Jewish scholars from Columbia. He thirsts for the experience outside of his roots that has been denied to him all these years, and turning twenty-one he feels that he is empowered to do so.
In some ways, this novel is very much the spiritual successor of Catcher in the Rye, but considering it is about the 1970s, it feels much more relevant to our present age. I found the pacing to be a bit of a slow burn, since it weaves this inner journey that Ben must make in order to reach the final beats of the narrative. Woulff provides a story with rich character development, which is impressive for a book that is trying to tackle not only personal conflict, but societal conflict and the social statements at large. Ben suffers from the divide his life takes after the party, where he hides pieces of his life from his Jewish friends.
The book is particularly polished, which is enjoyable and Woulff’s attention to detail and the interiority of her characters to be particularly good. It is also such a wonderful tale of how we can sometimes self-sabotage ourselves and not be able to see the “good” that is often right in front of us.
Stainer presents itself as a coming of age work and one that I think all ages should be able to enjoy. YA readers may take a particular pleasure in reading this novel.
Pages: 345 | ASIN: B071G8KFX1
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