Cover image for The unprofessionals : a novel
The unprofessionals : a novel
Hecht, Julie.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2003]

Physical Description:
227 pages ; 22 cm
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There is no American writer alive who is funnier, more inquisitive, or more surprising than Julie Hecht. The Unprofessionals, her first novel, whose nameless narrator also told the stories in the author's bestselling collection, Do the Windows Open?, is a mordant triumph. It follows the friendship between the narratora photographer in her late fortiesand a young man whom she has known since his childhood and who has always shared the narrator's dismay about the way Americans live now: our discount chain stores, our incomprehensible architecture, our preoccupation with pets, our lack of manners. As the narrator takes us through the various stages of this friendship, she also tells the story of the young man's incongruous predicament on his path to heroin addiction and the absurdities of his attempted recovery. The Unprofessionals is in part a masterpiece of comic despair, in part an illumination of the customs and mores of a new and bewildering century, in part a hilarious and sad story of two outsiders who see the world with painful clarityand, as a whole, a novel of unexampled originality.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Fluent in neuroses and melancholy, Hecht wrote with acute humor about end-of-the-millennium angst in the story collection Do the Windows Open? (1997), and now in her first novel, a stunning tale of post-September 11 malaise, she continues the story of her earlier protagonist, a high-strung, obsessively observant, disaffected photographer. Closing in on 50, Hecht's anxious maverick is increasingly dismayed by society's hypocrisy and crassness, not to mention her body's betrayal. Needled by the ugliness of shopping malls, junk food, pollution, and constant rudeness, she finds a kindred spirit in the hilariously acerbic yet painfully lonely son of a client, an impeccably dressed and extremely bright young misanthrope who, tragically, turns to hard drugs to ease his way through a world he perceives as unrelentingly stupid and hostile. As these two supersensitive loners struggle with the unbearable tawdriness of existence, Hecht waggishly assesses the insidious ineptness with which so many frustrated and alienated people function, from annoyed salesclerks to incompetent psychologists. Blessed with the magic of Truman Capote and the insightful wit of Lorrie Moore and Ann Beattie, Hecht creates her very own lancing vision of the careless destructiveness of our world. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

At once provocative and insular, this debut novel invites readers back inside the head of the protagonist of Hecht's cultishly popular short story collection Do the Windows Open? chronicling one of the strangest friendships in literary history. The unnamed narrator is 49, a reclusive, hypersensitive photographer; her best friend is a boy of 21. They have known each other for 10 years, since the photographer shot a story featuring the boy's renowned surgeon father. Though they meet occasionally, their friendship is primarily conducted over the telephone, in rambling conversations covering everything from the boy's sartorial preferences ("neatly pressed khakis and well-ironed shirts") to the relative virtues of different prescription drugs ("They gave me clonidine for a while. You should try it") to the maddening behavior of unprofessional professionals (therapists, leg waxers). When the narrator learns that her friend is a heroin addict, she is shocked and saddened that this could happen to someone she knows so well. She begins to reconsider the past: "I imagined him buying drugs from these guys, or getting a tip on where to get some nearby. I knew it and I didn't know it at the same time." As she tries to stand by the boy through rehabilitation and relapse, she berates herself for not seeing the big picture in time to prevent his agonizing downfall. With her studiedly offhand, acute social observations, Hecht captures the particular world-weariness of the new millennium (a not-always-appealing mix of vulnerability, petulance and narcissism), but it is her rendition of friendship in its most essential, pared-down state that gives this novel its undeniable power. (Oct. 7) Forecast: Hecht has a loyal following, which will undoubtedly grow with the release of this novel. The transparency of her prose and her perceptive chronicling of the zeitgeist give her fiction the appeal of Ann Beattie's early work. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Along with Nancy Lemann and Deborah Eisenberg, Hecht possesses one of the funniest and most original voices in fiction today. Her collection of interrelated stories, Do the Windows Open?, hilariously explored the dubious merits of modern American culture (hairpieces, neo-Nazi opticians, smelly buses, bad architecture) through the eyes of a fortysomething neurotic photographer. In Hecht's debut novel, the same deadpan anonymous narrator plays the lead role, and the slender plot focuses on her friendship with the son of a world-famous reproductive surgeon, a young man she has known since he was a little boy. He, too, is an outsider and misfit, an "unprofessional," and together in a series of phone conversations they wittily ponder the ridiculous world in which they live-which includes electrologists/leg waxers, JollyRoger candies, Waterpiks and toothbrushes ("One of his career goals was to start a publication called Minutiae"). While the brilliant Hechtian humor is here, it is undermined by a jarring and contrived plot twist, and it is hard for the reader to feel the narrator's grief. In the case of The Unprofessionals, the parts are much better than the whole. For larger fiction collections.-Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



an evening in winter an evening in winter It was the second month of living without a soul and I was getting used to the feeling. The obliteration of the self had begun two years before--probably it had begun years before--but at the brink of being seriously over forty-nine, it was coming into fruition. I saw every mistake I'd made, also the flaws in my character as well as my bone structure, and the combination of the two was deadly, forcing me to drag around the empty shell of a human form like the lost shadows of Peter Pan and Wendy or of Casper the Ghost. I dragged this around with my new lack of self and missing soul each day. Unlike a number of movie stars, I lacked the will to add false cheekbones. Although there is one early stage of the face falling in that gives the face owner the appearance of having bone structure, I had acknowledged awhile before this newest episode of emptiness and nothingness that the stage of slight structure had already passed, leaving the decline to a face that looked like a soft, still-unformed pancake, nothing more. Sometimes passing in front of a mirror, before I'd learned to avoid the dastardly objects, I'd seen the beginning of the pancake effect, and a few times this made me laugh out loud. Not the mad laugh of a woman in an asylum, as in the movie Spellbound, but a laugh of disbelief, of incredulousness that this could be happening to me. What had I done to deserve it? I'd never smoked or drunk alcoholic beverages. I'd taken no drugs. I'd avoided the sun after I found out about it at age thirty--too late. I tried to practice yoga and walked many miles every day. I'd been a vegetarian since birth, and then a vegan as soon as possible after that. It had to have been the bad thoughts. It must have been my low opinion of my mother's middle-aged face, my not having had the smallest inkling that this same facial decline might lie in store for me--it must have been that for which I was being punished. Also the damage done by the years of forced milk drinking during childhood. That was only the outside--I'd read that damage to the innards begins after infancy. I pictured plaque deposits starting in first grade, when my mother paid milk money to the teacher so that the little cartons of the thick liquid would be delivered to the classroom, where the unsuspecting children would have to drink it. i'd had one good day--or was it just a good few minutes--plus a grand finale that followed: the drive home from the discount drugstore with a bag of Xanax, a bag of chocolate, and, on the brighter side, a bag of Dr. Scholl's gel-and-foam innersoles. At the time I still had the high hopes of walking farther and farther each day. The Xanax--when I saw how nice and full the bottle was--I'd gone from thirty tablets at a clip, to sixty, to ninety, and was now hitting the jackpot with one hundred and twenty. But no congratulatory sticker was handed out or pasted to the bottle the way a sticker was affixed to the windshield of our Volvo when we reached one hundred thousand miles, though I thought I saw that the pharmacist was impressed when he handed me the bag of pills. Just the thought of the many peach-colored beauties tumbling about and clicking into each other in the newly orange colored bottle, this thought made me calm--I didn't have to take a pill or even half of one. The same with the chocolate. I had no plan to ingest any, but just the thought of the big sack full of extra-small-size Hershey bars on sale after Halloween, the thought of the special chocolate-colored foil-wrapped little bars prevented withdrawal from the drug I'd read was in the mixture--theobromine. If only that were available by itself. I'd read in Dr. Andrew Weil's newsletter that those who needed the drug should seek out a good brand of Belgian dark chocolate, or Valrhona, but in a patriotic gesture I never gave up the American brand. Chocolate, a sedative and antidepressant at the same time, except for the thought of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, which might have caused radioactive contamination at the nearby chocolate factory. for weeks, or years, I'd wished that I had someone to talk to. My closest friend, a twenty-one-year-old boy, was away in rehab for heroin addiction. My other friends were a group of narcissists or anxiety-depressives. Not that they were in any kind of organized group of people who knew who the others were. The narcissists were too narcissistic to care about anyone else and the anxious ones were too anxious to think about anyone but themselves. I was married to a man who liked to say, "You knew when you married me that I didn't talk." it was exactly the right time of night to be at the discount drugstore--eight-thirty--too late for children to be running around crying or demanding, sometimes in Spanish, candy and plastic toylike objects, but not close enough to the nine p.m. closing for me to be thrown out before I could gather up all the medium-green Reach toothbrushes with firm bristles. I had developed one bond with Patrick Buchanan, a man whose every sentence used to infuriate me: I wanted to hear English spoken by cashiers and customers. At least I wanted the cashiers to stop speaking Spanish to each other and help the customers at the counter. "Good evening, may I help you?" I never heard that. I had heard David Letterman say that when he was a grocery-bagger youth at a supermarket, he used to say "Hello" and "Thank you." He complained during his shows that the clerks and baggers no longer spoke to or even made eye contact with customers. He didn't mention the Spanish. The more Spanish I heard the more enraged I became. I knew this was another new, bad thing about myself. I had all the time I needed to look through the Dr. Scholl's innersoles and as I was studying a new light-pink rubbery kind with a miniature waffle pattern I heard a woman's voice say, "Don't get those. They're terrible." Since I had lived without a mother's advice for many years, I was startled to hear anyone say anything like this to me. I couldn't remember the last thing my mother had told me to get or not get. "Get Electrasol," she had told me about a dish-washing powder after I was married. "It's far superior," she added with a conviction that was a waste of her intelligence. I'd taken the advice and had bought Electrasol ever after, except for an experiment in switching to Ecover, the ecologically preferred brand. When Ecover didn't remove tea stains from cups, I had to go back to the chlorinated Electrasol. I felt bad every time I reached for the box. Some weeks earlier, I'd been dismayed to find that the Electrasol corporation had fiddled with the original formula and created a blue "Dual Action" product to replace the single- action white powder. The odor of the blue powder almost knocked me out when I opened the box. I remember gasping for breath as I staggered out of the cleanser aisle. When I looked up at the woman who was giving me the innersole advice, I was alarmed. Because I had seen her on other nights in the half hour before closing time at this drugstore, as well as at the supermarket late at night. Often she and I were the only two customers in either store. She was around fifty, or even older. She had long black hair, too long for her age, too long even for age forty, long black hair halfway down her back, or maybe hanging a few inches lower than the shoulders of her black leather jacket. Yes, black. Black, the darkest and deadliest of the colors. She was dressed head to toe in this color, yet she thought she should speak to me. She wore a black T-shirt underneath the black jacket and tight black pants, too tight for her ten pounds of overweight, and to top all this off she wore black shoes--high-heeled shoes--black pumps, they may still be called. I had no way of knowing, since I was no longer reading fashion magazines, even in doctors' waiting rooms. Walking and climbing magazines were my choices. On her face she wore a load of makeup--black eye makeup for eyebrows and eyeliner, tan powder with liquid face makeup underneath, and then--a final brutal shock to my delicate system--she was wearing bright red lipstick. I was still weak from the night before, when I'd almost passed out in the cleanser section at the supermarket after stepping into the aisle without even opening the spout on a box of dish-washing powder. The collected chemical fumes from all the detergent boxes were somehow seeping out into the air and I had to flee without even trying to hold my breath long enough to dash up the aisle to get some sponges. i looked up at the face, the whole personage of the woman customer who had taken it upon herself to advise me about the innersoles, and this is what she said: "You can feel the little square sections on the soles of your feet." "Oh," I said. "Thanks for telling me." "Get these," she said, pointing to the plain white foam style. "They wear out too fast," I said, beginning to feel the shock of being in a conversation with her. "But they're better," she said. "Get more and replace them." Apparently she hadn't seen the environmental segment of a program I had just watched on TV--it was about getting less. A carpet-company executive had become environmentally responsible after reading a book on the subject--it was "a knife in his heart" or some such dramatic phrase. "I was guilty," he said. Then he figured out a way to make his carpets last ten years, and during the ten years his company would service and repair the carpets, and when they were beyond repair he'd take them away and recycle them. A gigantic machine was shown grinding up old carpets and spewing out bits of gray and black rubbery stuff into another machine or bin to make more carpets. The case of Dr. Scholl's and the topic of recycling was as yet unknown to CNN's Pinnacle viewers. I pictured the mounds of worn-out and discarded foam shoe pads in a landfill in New Jersey filled with all kinds of garbage, or at the town dump in Nantucket, where a special dome had to be built to keep the ever expanding waste and accompanying fumes away from the homes of the many new million- and billionaires and their moors-encroaching real estate development. Since almost all of Nantucket was for sale, the land near the dump had some of the best views of the once-beautiful island. Excerpted from The Unprofessionals: A Novel by Julie Hecht All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.