Dan Baltic’s NUTCRANKR is one of the funniest books I have ever read. Maybe the funniest. I don’t remember laughing harder at a novel. It’s funny enough that as I read it from my lofty throne beside a roaring bonfire like the oracles of old, I, indeed, startled my loyal canine companion from his stalwart reveries of the hunt.
My apologies, I fell into a little bit of Grunhauerese there, though mine is not quite as good as Baltic’s. I’m going to try and avoid ruining the joke by explaining it (even if I could), but here are other funny things that it reminded me of in one way or another: Trailer Park Boys, where often the joke is in the consistency of the characters; the Paul Masson wine commercial outtakes with Orson Welles so drunk he thinks he’s the only one who knows it; the 4chan green-text hall of fame where heartbreaking sincerity and naïve solipsism explodes on contact with the real world; The Confederacy of Dunces for all the right reasons; Quixote for the delusions of grandeur.
And it’s not just gags–though it’s worth the read just for the quotables– because underneath the jokes and the incisive commentary on internet pseudo-intellectualism, the panic-inducing tension and spot-on characterization, is a legitimate comedic masterwork right down to the bones. And Baltic’s ability to maintain and continually re-double the magic over the course of 200 pages is a feat. The only caveat, perhaps, is that the book’s hilarity may be in direct proportion to how “online” you are as a reader – but that’s probably not you anyway.
Baltic’s debut novel is about a young man named Spencer Grunhauer, who is both a hyperbolic exaggeration and unsettlingly familiar to anyone who has spent far too much time scrolling twitter. Almost perfectly rendered, even in name, he believes he is destined for great things, that he is, as Gio Penn writes in the foreword, a “high-born nobleman of superior stock” who will, despite temporary embarrassment, take his proper place as a powerful man of history. In truth, when the book settles into its plot, Grunhauer is already at the high point of his life as a student enrolled in one “one of the more esteemed state schools.” He has few prospects, infeasible objectives, and a blindness about how he appears to others so total it’s a wonder he can get himself dressed in the morning. And yet, as a reader, you absolutely must find out what he gets up to. It would be easier to look away from a twitter meltdown.
The text-within-the-text, Grunhauer’s Project, as he calls it, is not unlike a few Substacks you might stumble upon from time to time: extolling fringe politics as though they are irrefutable fact, cherry-picking from the history of ideas, lacing hypocritical declarations with vitriolic -isms, and yet not void of the occasional point. Where the narrative thrust comes in–and it’s as taut as any good thriller in its way–is when this Project (and thereby Grunhauer’s internal world) bumps up against his life. And further, I think it will be remembered for the way it handles one of the most important questions of our time.
Based vs. Cringe
An unreliable narrator is fun to read; but, for my dollar, this technique–actually a cluster of techniques–works best in the service of dramatic irony. From almost the first page of NUTCRANKR, we know that Spencer Grunhauer is headed for catastrophe–but he has no idea. And what Baltic has done so brilliantly here is that he has generated this potent dramatic irony largely from the friction between the distorted, self-important reality of a very addled man and the realities of the actual world he so poorly navigates. In short, Grunhauer thinks he’s based, but we know he’s one of the most cringe characters in all of fiction.
What is based, anyway? And what is cringe? The best definition I’ve seen of the former is that it means the opposite of “debased” – so then “based” means virtuous and of high quality. It also means, in internet-speak, something like: “courageous, unconcerned with the opinions of others.” Beyond this–based (ha) on who uses the term, and why–”based” can be used to indicate that something exemplifies the best attributes of conservatism. Something “based” then, is masculine, virtuous, tough, smart, and concerned with an ideal world situated in reality. Fair enough. Of course, the word “base” also means, per dictionary.com, “morally low; without estimable personal qualities; dishonorable; meanspirited; selfish; cowardly.”
What is cringe, then? Cringe is when someone acts in a way so embarrassing or awkward that it makes you feel a twinge of embarrassment. It’s why we sometimes look away when someone slips on the ice or spills a drink in their lap–we’re trying to save them, and thus ourselves, from a moment of embarrassment. But the most cringe of all is when a person’s self-seriousness founders on their pitiful (as is everyone’s) humanity. The simplest way to dissolve your own cringe, as we all know, is to have a good healthy laugh at yourself. It’s the only way out. Grunhauer, apparently, was born without the part of the brain that allows one to have a laugh at their own weirdness and flaws.
Baltic has staged a high drama in the eternal battle of based vs. cringe. He brings it to the level of the most terrifying horror films–where you plead with the character not to go down into that creepy basement. But here we hope against hope that Grunhauer just shuts up long enough to get through a situation unscathed. It’s entertaining as hell, trust me. It starts out with Grunhauer making romantic overtures toward his lovely, married professor during a small gathering of students at her “Tudor home.” To this pizza party, Grunhauer has brought expensive Scotch that tastes terrible to him, but which he knows to be one of the more desirable Scotches. Because of his intelligence and virility–both largely imagined–Grunhauer assumes that she is falling helplessly in love with him, despite her husband. After all “The Muse needs a man who is equipped for the creative voyage of the one who is always self-overcoming. The Muse needs the Übermensch. And this lawyer (her husband) was, at best, only a mensch.” Grunhauer becomes frustrated and self-righteous when she resists his advances. And though he is humiliated by misreadings and self-importance to the point of tears he can’t even acknowledge, he is utterly incapable of the kind of embarrassment that might make him act otherwise the next time. And yet this moment, which would mortify almost anyone, is infinitesimal compared to the uncharted regions of cringe toward which Grunhauer is steering his painfully contemporary life.
You gonna wear the hat, bro?
Any novel that tries to capture its time runs the risk of being outdated when it hits the shelves, not to mention the reader’s nightstand. A writer can mitigate this by avoiding the topical in favor of the generalized, by trying to predict the future, by being as up-to-date as humanly possible, or by selecting moments in the past that are known to resonate historically. Baltic, in NUTCRANKR, has chosen the risky route of situating at least some of his plot in the context of very recent events, our perspective of which is still in flux. An advantage here is that his readers will know exactly what he’s talking about without taking to Google and, just maybe, he has a chance to shape opinions on what those moments mean(t).
The conventions and culture of 4Chan, which has faded in direct relevance while remaining vital if semi-subterranean, is one brushstroke here. The Women’s March and the famous pink pussy hats are another. The chapter focusing on this latter is one of the more painful (read: excellent and hilarious) in the book and Baltic handles it deftly. Is going to the march a “pilgrimage in honor of Global Marxism”? Maybe. What matters here, though, is that Grunhauer thinks it is and yet he goes anyway, while voicing hardly any resistance. Why? Because he is in love, sorta, with a woman over whom he believes himself superior. Is this Grunhauer’s downfall? Perhaps. But only because he did not have the courage to align his thoughts with his actions. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making some compromises with a spouse or a girlfriend of course. Much virtue has been manifested out of love, and everyone has done a few things they would have rather not. Sometimes you just go to the movie she wants to see. But this runs much deeper: beyond a simple weakness in a single character, I read this as a thoughtful indictment around much of online discourse–and how many of us have been a little Spencer Grunhauery in our own way. It’s easy enough to take some virtuous stand online (even if it is virtuous only to us), it’s quite another to live it out. And if you can’t live it out, then pretending you do online is little more than LARPing. Funnily enough, hidden within a hilarious cringefest, Baltic seems to be suggesting we get real. Does this mean that you, metaphorically speaking, refuse to wear the hat? Or do you nut up and only speak of the life you’re willing to live? Well, that’s up to you. But, for Grunhauer’s sake, try not to be cringe.
— Brad Kelly is a fiction writer and co-host of the Art of Darkness podcast. He has recently published HOUSE OF SLEEP, a work of literary psy-fi, and is currently developing a novel entitled THAT WHICH IS WITHIN and an experimental text spelunking the Tarot card-by-card. He is a former Michener Fellow and has been widely published in literary magazines.