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Conquistador of the Useless

Philadelphia Review of Books
"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."
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
Jim Ward, member of At the Drive-In and Sleepercar
Reading this book is like catching up with an old friend from back in the day—the friend who got the same dirty looks you did, the ones for looking different than the other kids. The friend who turned you on to records you never heard of and would treat your records with respect. The friend who was equally disappointed when the football team started singing along to Nirvana, breaking out of “their” world and entering “our” world. The friend who has pretty much followed the same path in life you have, the one you can still connect with.
I felt such nostalgia at the band shoutouts in Conquistador of the Useless. A lot of memories came back that felt so good and had been just out of reach until I read it cover to cover on a plane ride. The journey of discovering belongs to each one of us, but it’s reassuring when you read someone’s take on a journey that feels so familiar.
Small Press Reviews
"Anyone who grew up at the tail-end of Generation X will find something to love in this book — the protagonist’s angst over drifting, however late, into adulthood, his taste in music, or even his fraught-if-only-because-it’s-so-damn-pleasant relationship with his parents. All told, a fine novel about settling down without settling."
In many ways, Joshua Isard’s Conquistador of the Useless offers the perfect counterpoint to Spencer Dew’s Here Is How it Happens (reviewed here two weeks ago). Where Dew’s protagonists are college-aged rebels doing their best to avoid making the leap to post-college mainstream society, Isard’s novel finds a somewhat similar pair of lovers adjusting, at times uncomfortably, to a bourgeois suburban lifestyle about a decade after graduation.
The novel begins with narrator Nathan Wavelsky and his wife Lisa moving into a new home and learning upon meeting their new neighbors that the beloved music of their youth has been reduced to the status of a glorified tchotchke in the form of a Fender Jaguar signed by the members of Nirvana and mounted behind a thick pane of glass. That Nathan makes a good living as a corporate hatchet man only adds to his growing sense of ennui, and Lisa’s sudden desire to start a family makes matters worse.
The problem isn’t necessarily that he ever saw himself as a rebel, nor is it that he sees settling down in suburbia as a sign of giving up on his dreams. The problem, as far as he can tell, is that he never really had any big dreams to begin with — so he does what any red-blooded American would do. He goes out and gets one. Or at least he stumbles upon one when his old college buddy shows up with a scheme to climb Mount Everest. What follows is a journey of self-discovery that allows Nathan to recognize that what matters most in his life. (Hint: It has nothing to do with the mountain.)
In terms of style, Isard’s writing reminds me of Shaun Haurin and Curt Smith. Like Haurin, Isard places the musical tastes of his characters front and center through much of the narrative while, like Smith, he demonstrates a firm understanding of the compromises we all make on the long, winding path to adulthood. I’d mention that Nathan’s relative lack of direction and ambition echo the same traits in Charley Schwartz, the beleaguered narrator of my own novel, ,i>The Grievers, but that would be self-serving, so I’ll just say that on nearly every page of Conquistador of the Useless I found something that struck a chord. I’d even be willing to bet that anyone who grew up at the tail-end of Generation X will find something to love in this book — the protagonist’s angst over drifting, however late, into adulthood, his taste in music, or even his fraught-if-only-because-it’s-so-damn-pleasant relationship with his parents. All told, a fine novel about settling down without settling.
- March 29, 2013 
San Antonio Express-News
If ever there was a novel about ordinary characters doing ordinary things, this is it, and it's kind of an amazing effort because of how simple it is: It doesn't try to overscale its themes, and so the material rings true and is surprisingly affecting. It expands in the mind like an insistent beat because it's a reminder of one's own years of painful self-analysis.
Your 20s are a tough sell, and your 30s are even tougher. Too young to take life seriously and too old to just wing it (things like credit scores and health insurance become a big deal), you're left wondering where it all went wrong.
Some people look back on their teens as the best years of their lives. These sad sacks recount high school tales — skipped classes, sloppy sex, angsty music — with a bitter, nostalgic tone that says: I wish I could go back.
Joshua Isard's debut novel, “Conquistador of the Useless,” is about the idealization of youth by a man who has grown up into stasis. As a late-term Generation Xer, Nathan Wavelsky was all about flannel shirts and Nirvana in high school; he formed his whole identity around the undirected soul-searching that was endemic to the apathetic grunge crowd.
Now at 30-something, he finds himself living in the suburbs, stuck in an uninspiring midlevel corporate job, and lock-set in a marriage that mostly resembles those chummy-sweet, on-to-nowhere relationships we all had in high school.
It's not that the sex was better way back when, or that the music was of higher quality. (Was Nirvana really all that, or did we buy into the attitude as much as — and even more than — the music?)
The real reason for this idealization of youth is that back then, Nate — and the rest of us, for that matter — gave himself the freedom to care more deeply. The stakes weren't as high, and so, we were free to invest more of ourselves into life. We had no concrete aims, but at least we were engaged, and we lived exhilaratingly on waves of pure emotion. Even the grunge generation could be passionate about being dispassionate.
Isard writes about this crisis of aimlessness with a light touch and an acidic, sweetly sad humor. He nails the character: Nate feels out of place in his own life, but the problem is not that Nate has a boring life (it's no more boring than yours or mine), it's that he places himself outside of the situation. He doesn't let any of it sink in.
When his wife brings up the possibility of having kids, it comes as a shock and he resists, even when she becomes a nagging beast about it. And when his best friend asks if he wants to climb Mount Everest, he is hugely skeptical. It's youthful aimlessness transposed to a not-quite midlife setting.
If ever there was a novel about ordinary characters doing ordinary things, this is it, and it's kind of an amazing effort because of how simple it is: It doesn't try to overscale its themes, and so the material rings true and is surprisingly affecting. It expands in the mind like an insistent beat because it's a reminder of one's own years of painful self-analysis.
Many of my friends are talking of settling down, and I've always suspected a buried sadness in their voices when they speak of marriage, kids and job security. Isard captures this absurd sadness: At some point, we all have to admit that the joke is over, maybe things didn't go exactly as we had hoped, some dreams might never be realized, and now it's time to buckle down and get serious.
Nate gives himself an out. He refuses to deal with the present because the past seems so much sweeter. You know this guy: the dopey-eyed dreamer, low-key chill, eternally nice, wouldn't hurt a fly, perpetually a kid. He's best friend/sidekick material, and we have trouble calling guys like this “sir.”
“Conquistador of the Useless” is a novel about a guy who must finally grow up and connect with the world around him.
- Gerard Martinez, August 8, 2013  Visit Website
Paul Elwork,author of The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead,
“Joshua Isard’s debut novel is a brisk and rewarding journey, a search for meaning without
handy answers or sentimental assurances. Conquistador of the Useless begins with an engaging, smartass narrator who believes he keeps all things and all people at arm’s length. As Nathan’s story unfolds, it takes us to deep places he never intended—places of everyday revelation and of epic mortal proportions, without ever losing the funny charm of its earlier pages.”
- April 11, 2013 
Richard Wertime, Citadel on the Mountain: A Memoir of Father and Son

"Joshua Isard’s first novel enjoys the disciplined precision of a finely honed play script—and a stunning climactic moment that is beautifully narrated. Conquistador is the story of a man in his early thirties who steps out, finally, from behind his love of books and the popular bands he favors (this is truly a novel for that generation!) to embrace his adulthood, to allow the inner warmth that has been in his nature all along to come to the fore. Mentoring, as he does, both a listless teen girl and a drifting young man in search of true feeling, each of whom is an alter ego, he arrives to a base camp on the slopes of Mt. Everest for a meeting alike with death and with the promise of new life. An altogether hip novel, both sassy and classy, Conquistador is a heartwarming novel of genuine growth.
- April 12, 2013 
Geekadelphia
"A brilliant novel...."
- October 16, 2013  Visit Website
This Blog Will Change Your Life
"This book will change your life ... Rich in both detail and humor … [Isard] has spoken the unspoken, something men think, but shouldn't say, much less imply.”
This Book Will Change Your Life
We suppose there must be something out there called "Dick Lit." Said lit would be the spawn of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, who can legitimately be called out for exposing state secrets, and might be described as literature about men as boys not quite wanting to be men. Said lit is also required to touch on music, sometimes books, and lists, girls, escape, if not outright quest, outsiderness as cool, and the idea that John Cusack, bless his heart, is all we need to know or aspire to. Post-Dick Lit, there is the nebulous next stage in life, as well as, lit manhood, and books such as Fathermucker by the Greg Olear, which neatly, and brilliantly, capture this world. These books retain the same touchstones, but are a sort of coming of age tale for those who have already come of age, have found some kind of adult groove, are now faced with what comes next, and how any of it can possibly work out. Conquistador of the Useless by the Joshua Isard falls into this latter group, and in doing so, is rich in both detail and humor, and is not only hits the touchstones, music, lists, quests, etc., but fluidly creates a whole suburban world of marriage, office, neighbors, and aging, though not aged, parents. What's needed for these books to truly work though, is two-fold. First, there must be a new take on the old wrinkles, and in this, Isard is not only successful, but possibly prescient, in creating a protagonist who is all about work, and yet is comfortably striving for nothing more than happiness and contentment. Work is work, and necessity, certainly, but it is not life, nor intended to be anything greater than what we do day to day so we can do everything else, assuming we know what that is. Secondly, and harder to capture, the story must be authentic, or at least have moments that are so authentic, or real, that they elevate the tale beyond good writing and storytelling. Olear wrote several such scenes, including one in which the protagonist fulfills his quest after such a bad day of fathering that he, and we, are utterly amazed, and moved, he could do so. It is a scene that feels so real, it indeed elevates an already terrific book. Isard accomplishes this as well, and there is one scene that resonated with us in particular. The protagonist has made a connection with a young, female neighbor, actions that will always feel suspect, because they are always suspect, and then tells his wife that this young woman will someday be hot, something which is ultimately no different than saying she already is. When his wife calls him on this, he pleads ignorance, though there's no point in doing so. Like Hornby's best characters, he has spoken the unspoken, something men think, but shouldn't say, much less imply: in this case, the idea that really young women won't always be so young and men are all to aware of that. It is in speaking the unspoken where literature has the chance to take off, moving from good to great, and changing lives, even if only briefly at that.
- July 20, 2014  Visit Website
Cleaver Magazine
"Nathan’s evolution from ornery 90s cliché to absurdist hero is well worth the read. The authenticity of the author’s voice and lack of literary pretension also makes for an enjoyable experience."
- October 10, 2014 

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