Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews What We Never Had by Zach Wyner.
I recently watched Mike Birbiglia’s movie, Don’t Think Twice, and one of my favorite lines was, “Your twenties are all about hope and then your thirties are all about realizing how dumb it was to hope.” We’re shown this kind of mentality throughout What We Never Had. The main character Josh—though not quite thirty—is starting to develop a similar outlook on life. It is mentioned, but never fully developed, about how he came back to Los Angeles to try and make it as an actor, but it didn’t pan out. He failed years before the story takes place and now we’re watching him readjust his expectations for life. The acting element is a small piece of the greater narrative and while we don’t get the full story we’re not supposed to because the core of Zach Wyner’s novel is what comes after.
Josh is a mid-to-late twentysomething who has a modest job as a high school tutor at a drop-in center. His ex-girlfriend, June, has somehow worked her way back into his life and is temporarily staying with him—along with two of his friends, Amare and Bill—in a small one-bedroom apartment. The novel bounces from scenes of Josh being an exceptional mentor for the youth to him second-guessing his place in life. He thinks he’s worth more than the entry-level position at work, but even when he’s presented with an opportunity for a promotion he hesitates because he doesn’t want to leave his kids behind. Whether this is a selfless act of caring or if he is simply too comfortable within the normalcy of repetition is up to the reader to decide. Either way, it is the epitome of the book: Josh trying to reconcile the parallel doubts of thinking he is good enough, but knowing he might not be.
A good chunk of the novel involves Josh and June’s relationship. In flashbacks we are shown how he was the “winner” in regards to June choosing him when she had her pick of men. We see when they broke up and the strain their relationship put on them as individuals, and it all makes sense. In the present time we know Josh has a weakness for June because of her beauty, but we’re not shown much more than that. While I can believe what I’m reading on the page, I wanted to see them when they were both happy. I wanted to know why this relationship started and continued. I hope it was more than the prospect of having sex with a beautiful person. If she was so manipulative—as we’re led to believe—I’d like to see her manipulate her way into making Josh fall so hard for her. We get a lot of the key moments in their history, but we’re missing the beginning.
One nugget of wisdom tucked into the book was how growing up in a comfortable home without worries is a good thing, but at the same time it disservices a person because they are never forced to deal with tough situations until later in life. At that point it may be too late for a person to have developed the skills to deal with the hard moments. There are sparks of societal observation like this between Josh and his temporary roommates, Amare and Bill, or his aloof best friend, Harrison. This is one of the traps men-drinking-in-bars books can fall into: the characters aren’t doing anything other than drinking, so to fill the pages the author tries to insert large metaphysical notions into the dialogue. When it doesn’t work it is painful to read. Wyner, on the other hand, does it well because the moments of philosophy are asides to the action at hand. They are added bonuses to the narrative instead of him trying to hinge the action around getting to these larger ideas.
Wyner chose to write What We Never Had in second person. This can sometimes feel a little clunky because we’re supposedly reading something that happened to us. I imagine this could be more cumbersome for someone who doesn’t have as much in common with Josh. In the end, I’m not sure this choice added anything to the novel, but it didn’t hinder it. Even with this artistic choice, the story is able to stand on its own with these depressed, but enjoyable characters. It’s their naturalistic take on everyday life that makes the novel engaging. We’re not given grand gestures and life-altering events—we’re watching the evolution of one man’s outlook day-by-day. Even though the apartment seemed cramped with Amare, Bill, and Josh, I wouldn’t mind finding a little floor space and joining them for a while longer.