A Review of Emil DeAndreis Tell Us When To Go
Reviewed by David Nash
Music’s potential to captivate, transform, and develop themes offers writers a multifaceted tool. One way to incorporate music is to take it from the top like Emil DeAndreis does in his third book, Tell Us When to Go, which takes its title from the E-40 hit single “Tell Me When To Go.” The single encapsulates the energy, culture, and expression of San Francisco in the mid-2000s, so much so the novel’s main character, Cole Gallagos, adopts it as his “walkout song” - the pre-game hype song the home team plays as its starting pitcher warms up on the mound.
Cole nears perfection as he stands on the mound in the ninth inning, one strike away from a perfect game (i.e., three batters up, three down for the whole game). But then the ball slips from his control, inciting his precipitous fall from the echelons of baseball glory and his ignominious crash into the world of an unemployed college dropout weathering the Great Recession in a frat-like San Francisco apartment paid for by his parents and shared with his former teammate, Isaac Moss, an unemployed benchwarmer, and full-time wallflower.
DeAndreis’ novel features two points of view, Cole and Isaac; like E-40’s single features two MCs with distinctive styles and personas that disrupt expectations and add perspective. E-40 substitutes the traditional third verse with a call (and a call back) between the MC and the crowd. Similarly, DeAndreis intersperses his narrative with social media posts between the main character and a larger online forum. The hilarious posts add dimension and a twist, like a skillful third verse. E-40’s single features syncopated rhythms and lyrics, displacing regular accents and disrupting the anticipated flow. DeAndreis' novel twists in direction and diction, forcing the reader to pick up the beat and code switch.
More than hip-hop references, literature needs works that explore healthy male friendships. Close male friendships are as hard to come by in literature as in real life. A recent study found one in four men under the age of thirty has no close social connections. Research shows isolation can contribute to ailments from heart disease to Alzheimer’s. Cole and Isaac demonstrate that music and sports offer two pathways for men to form close friendships.
DeAndreis’ novel takes off when Cole and Isaac start new jobs that pull them in opposite directions. The diverging paths they take will strain and test their relationship.
As a paraprofessional in an inner-city high school, Cole finds himself overwhelmed and under-trained. His students and administrators question whether his identity gives him the credibility to claim an E-40 song as his own. In addition, Cole finds his assigned student to be troubled and confrontational because she lacks the love and safety of a family. Cole realizes he must move beyond his comfort zone and address his past to make the relationship transformative.
Isaac finds a job as a part-timer at a tech startup where he’s overworked, underpaid, and teased. He makes friends with a character who sports a “Froyo is a food group” t-shirt and drinks IPAs reminiscent of Lucky Charms. Isaac gets comfortable adapting to the tastes and culture of this new world. He begins to generate his own business ideas and takes Cole down from his pedestal.
Traveling with these characters, the reader finds that San Francisco can birth an underground hip-hop movement encapsulated by the title song and give rise to the prosaic navel-gazing startup world where execs arrange for Cake (the band) to play at their birthday party. However, coexistence is a different matter from creation. How can a city, let alone a friendship, maintain itself while it contains opposing value systems?
DeAndreis’ third book integrates his previous books with lucidity and emotional heft. DeAndreis’ first book, Hard to Grip, is a memoir about his struggle as a former top-tier (D1) college pitcher whose professional baseball dreams are crushed by a rare condition in healthy young men, rheumatoid arthritis. DeAndreis’ second book, Beyond Folly, is a related series of short stories that depict the dysfunction of public education through the lens of a substitute teacher in San Francisco. Through Cole’s perspective, DeAndreis captures the world of IEPs (individualized education plans), paraprofessionals, and dysfunctional school administrations that fail to meet the challenges of special needs children. As a father of two special needs children, I can vouch for the accuracy of his description and that the special needs system Cole encounters deserves more attention. As a former D1 athlete like Cole, I experienced the heady recruitment process and initial success before the long come-down and resignation and regret of what could have been. Like London to Paris, it’s a short trip from the best of times to the worst of times.
Since Dickens, novelists have used their platform to deliver poignant social critiques. DeAndreis uses his to address startup culture and its gruel - gentrification, exploitation, elitism, etc. He addresses the general with specifics. The dialogue about Odwalla bottles claiming biodegradability but still requiring recycling indicates that the “doing good” talk is merely a marketing ploy. The scene where 49er fans turn away from their local brewery, unable to watch their football team play on TV because Isaac’s startup has rented the ability to play The Goonies on mute with David Bowie in the background, indicates that even if startups have good intentions, they don’t understand the local culture or people from divergent backgrounds and so, couldn’t get out of their own way.
DeAndreis weaves the threads of male friendship, the fall from grace, gentrification, internet trolling, coming of age, the Great Recession, and San Francisco culture. DeAndreis makes these threads engaging by creating complex characters and posing personal questions for them to resolve: will their jobs pull them apart and lead to something better? Can they reconcile their issues constructively? And who will tell them when to go?
Dave Nash is the Non-Fiction Editor at Five South. He lives in New Jersey with his fam. You can find him on Twitter @DaveNashLit1.
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