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Conquistador of the Useless

Philadelphia Review of Books

When we’re children we’re told that we can do anything, be anything when we grow up. Then we grow up and realize that we’ve been lied to and that life has different plans in store. This is what Nathan Wavelsky and his wife Lisa realize when they re-integrate into the suburban lives they once knew as teenagers in Joshua Isard’s new novel Conquistador of the Useless. Nathan is a regional manager of a cable hardware distributer who fires people at his corporation’s whim and Lisa works as a college registration coordinator. Neither is truly happy having once dreamed of doing something meaningful with their lives.
In the Philadelphia suburbs, their neighbors are friendly and polite though it seems more like an overtly fake and ritualistic system. It’s a world of quiet nights, backyard barbecues and Olive Gardens. Nathan and Lisa find the whole lifestyle laughable until Lisa’s biological clock starts to tick. With a hypothetical baby on his mind, Nathan begins to question his abilities as a potential father. Following a misunderstanding over a Kurt Vonnegut book that turns the whole neighborhood against him, he begins to reexamine his life. He looks at his job, his past and realizes that he still doesn’t know what he wants out of life. He needs to revisit the passion he felt in his youth before starting a family. This all comes on the heels of an old friend’s invitation to join him in ascending Mount Everest.
Nathan, like many of us, is still living in the past. He listens to mostly 90s music and often uses an artist to characterize other people like Jars of Clay for a close-minded neighbor. The whole novel is a seminar in 90s grunge music from The Pixies to PJ Harvey to Mudhoney accompanied by a special Spotify playlist QR code at the beginning of the book. This obsession makes it clear that Nathan is stuck in the past where another old interest, mountains and mountaineering, still resides. It will be in revisiting the latter and climbing Mount Everest that Nathan might finally learn to let go of who he once was and pursue a realistic adulthood with Lisa.
This book moved me in a way that I wasn’t expecting. As a twenty-something still trying to figure out his place in the world, I couldn’t help but relate immediately to Nathan. I found myself laughing constantly at Isard’s biting one-liners, witty writing and references, not knowing that the book contained something very powerful, an emotional sneak attack. The reader spends a great deal of time getting to know Nathan through little details, memories and conversations that come full circle in the end.
Conquistador of the Useless is filled with the many “useless” parts of Nathan’s life. It’s these “useless” things in life that are the most important – your favorite album in high school, a relaxing cup of tea every day or even climbing a mountain for no other reason than to say that you did. These bits and pieces color our lives with meaning. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t become a doctor or a lawyer. You haven’t failed. It doesn’t matter that you’re struggling to get by every single day, moving further and further from where you thought you were going. You’re alive. There’s such sadness in the every day moments of life, but it’s the things that we take for granted, the “useless,” that make most days more bearable.
Isard understands this in his skilled writing of Nathan, a normal man who is tested by his wife, his neighbors, his work and life itself. Isard’s debut novel is one of the best I’ve read in a while, a heartbreaking book, and a funny and emotionally trying read that’s worth every minute of your time.
- Brendan Rastetter, August 5, 2013  Visit Website

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