YES, DADDY by Jonathan Parks-Ramage (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pp., $25)
"Yes, Daddy," the Hamptons-based debut novel by Jonathan Parks-Ramage, may leave you queasy for all the wrong reasons.
A gothic thriller set primarily on a "[Richard] Serra-esque" Southampton compound, "Yes, Daddy" moves apace, is smartly written and undeniably amusing. The problem is not with its artistry, but with its intention — the fiction is pulp, not serious literature. It’s genre, which is fine, but because it deals with such hot-button issues as gang rape, indentured servitude, homophobia, conversion therapy, religious fanaticism and false allegations of child molestation, the whole endeavor feels sensationalistic and very nearly exploitative.
As is the current trend to take sensitive topics and turn them into titillating diversions, "Yes, Daddy" finds itself at home with other recent "content" of its type, including Jordan Peele’s "Get Out," Emerald Fennell’s "Promising Young Woman" and anything produced by Ryan Murphy. It's hardly a surprise that "Yes, Daddy" has already been bought by Amazon Studios and will soon be a movie. The structure, tone, pacing and language all feel TV-movie ready. It goes down quickly, does a disservice to its subjects and is soon forgotten. Sadly, this is the fate of most contemporary novels with their derivative MFA-workshop formulas.
The story centers on young Jonah Keller, an aspiring gay playwright from Illinois, whose Christian zealot parents do irreparable damage to him. He flees to New York City where he secures a job as a waiter in a swank, though sleazy, restaurant frequented by handsy older gay men of means. Jonah’s desperate financial state — he sublets a crummy apartment in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn from the lead singer of an underground rock band and begs his mother for rent money every month — impels him to pursue accomplished playwright and screenwriter Richard Shriver, who whisks him away to his stately compound in Sagaponack. The very rich Richard apparently owns so much property, he had four additional houses built on his land for his closest friends, an assortment of lecherous, shallow, debased, narcissistic high-society stereotypes. Jonah, as well as a waitstaff of bruised but beautiful boys, are trapped on the grounds, hemmed in by an outsized iron fence. Jonah soon learns that this fantastical existence will cost him much more than he can afford to pay.
"Yes, Daddy" has its surprises, which I won’t ruin. Many of Richard’s cohorts — and cartoonishly gargoyle mother — quickly reveal themselves to be monsters to varying degrees. They are all deeply wounded, cynical people — stupendously successful designers, artists, filmmakers and actors who are so bored with their dreamlike lives they find stimulation only in abuse and cruelty.
There is an interesting psychological study buried somewhere in here, one that would have made for a deeper and more complex book. What is it about absolute power that corrupts absolutely? Do those who have the most gifts, privilege and access turn barbaric because of their good fortunes or have they achieved their wealth and ascension because they began as venal sociopaths? These are questions a more thoughtful story would have attempted to probe, if not answer. Novelists shouldn’t answer questions, anyway, but only pose them. It’s also a lazy, tired trope to always portray the wealthy as outrightly evil, as if exponents of the underclass are incapable of heinous deeds.
Jonah, much like all the characters that inhabit the novel, is spoiled and ungrateful. He's a predatory social climber obsessed with status and money who takes advantage of his mother’s financial generosity. Parks-Ramage clearly knows this world well, one of conspicuous consumption, prohibitive fashion labels, tony restaurants, rarified art forums, celebrity culture, and all the vapid, superficial markings of New York’s gay social scene. The story also offers knowing insights into the pointed snobbery of New York’s literati and the intellect-numbing drone of big media like TMZ, Buzzfeed and Vice .
Parks-Ramage also accurately captures Southampton life — all the pretenses, pedigrees and preening. The mansions along the beach. Manors nestled within lush gardens. The Hamptons Jitney. Jobs Lane shopping. Exclusive parties.
If only he’d dedicated as much energy and care developing the moral ambiguities of his story.