A novel to be returned to over and over again both for its hilarity and its interesting, intelligent conversation on the arts.
Grab some paper, a pen and throw your Pop-Tart, better referred to in Loudermilk as a “post-modern strudel,” into the toaster oven and get ready to return to an America fresh off the “Mission Accomplished” speech to think about just how strange it is to be an artist within a society whose academic and economic structures inherently limit creative expression. Lucy Ives’ Loudermilk is fast-paced, beautifully and hilariously written, making it feel as though it already sits amongst the great satires written in the past 20 years.
The novel, split up into many small sections focalized through a handful of different characters, mainly follows two throughlines and three main figures. Troy Loudermilk is attending The Seminars, a fictionalized version of the world-famous, insanely prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, of which Ives is an alumna, as a poetry fellow; however, he has never written any poetry, ever. That’s where his roommate and shadow, Harry Rego, takes over, writing poems to be turned in under Loudermilk’s name, while both of them live off of the awarded fellowship money. Our other lead, also attending The Seminars, except as a writer of fiction, Clare Elwil, is immensely talented and her work has gained some notoriety even before stepping foot on campus, but that was the Clare of old. The Clare we meet in Loudermilk is stuck fighting through an indefinite period of writers’ block.
As is relatively typical of the satire genre, many of the characteristics of the players and situations within the novel are written as exaggerations of particular archetypes, and in this mode, Loudermilk is a shining star—his Van Wilder-esque sensibilities, along with the very upper-class, it-will-all-work-out-in-the-end-for-me-because-look-at-my-last-name-and- this-jawline level of confidence leaps off the page. He serves as a remarkable source of laughter and a disappointing reminder of how many Loudermilks, with their admittedly funny, all-at-once highbrow and unavoidably immature new-millennia email addresses like “firstname.lastname@example.org,” actually succeed and run the world with very little stress ever actually coming their way.
The ratio of pages to laugh-out-loud moments in Loudermilk is impressive, and beyond the many hysterical set-pieces and character reactions to the likes of near-death driving experiences, drunken conversations with people dressed as Bill Clinton and the terrifying witnessing of someone writing prose, Ives’ witty asides and comedic description of a privileged life in higher-education circa 2003, as well as a keen ear for era-specific lingo, goes far to place readers back in that time. Loudermilk’s tone makes for relatively easy reading—even in passages wherein characters are struggling with headier literary, artistic and pedagogical ideas, the jokes stay rolling and even in some of the more serious situations, including familial traumas and crumbling marriages, the novel feels less invested in telling an intensely emotional story and more so in living in, and thinking about its characters and the world and time that they have to exist in.
Despite Loudermilk’s name gracing the cover of Ives’ piece, it is Harry and Clare that are the real heart of the story, and it is through them that Ives’ is able to look so deeply and meaningfully at the world of creativity and authorship. Harry stands in as Loudermilk’s opposite pole—he is a quiet, introverted and artistic wallflower with extreme social anxiety who lacks the classically beautiful outer shell that Loudermilk inhabits. Clare feels the most outside of satirical representation and the most three-dimensional character within the novel, possibly due to the amount of time readers spend with her thoughts through free indirect discourse. With both Harry and Clare, readers are asked not only to laugh but mostly to think.
Through these characters and their ruminations on their world is where Ives’ novel moves from being a quick, joyful read into a novel of importance with incredible substance. Beneath the surface of satirization of early-aughts frat-boy phraseology and high-level pretentiousness, Loudermilk offers inquiry into more sophisticated, literary topics as well. Loudermilk is a novel that questions the concept of what it means to be an actual author or artist—it also questions what happens to creativity when placed into the confines of intense academic and capitalist structures. Harry and Loudermilk’s plan hinges upon them learning and knowing what to write and how to write to keep the academics and professors pleased. This direct line between livelihood and creativity that Ives interrogates brilliantly exposes some of the more absurd realities and bounds manifested for artists in such an economically driven world. Through Clare, Ives is also able to explore, more critically than through Harry and Loudermilk’s plot, what it means to be a creator who is no longer creating and the deadline focused world of academia and publishing and the pressure artists feel to always be producing on someone else’s timeline, regardless of the artists’ inspiration or motivation.
Loudermilk is written with the immense skill one would assume of an Iowa Writers’ Workshop author. It also points out and laughs at the pretense one might also expect without ever falling victim to pomposity. It is a novel to be returned to over and over again both for its hilarity and its interesting, intelligent conversation on the arts. Ives has taken her MFA certificate and written an inquisitive, writerly, wonderful satirical novel on its blank side.