“Play the Devil,” a novel by recent graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey Scott Laudati, attempts to be the next “Great American Novel,” but unfortunately comes out stale.
The book centers around the character Londi, a 20-something college dropout who finds himself at a crossroads most people his age know all too well — the what-am-I-going-to-do-for the-rest-of-my-life stage.
Londi moves back to his old hometown with the hope of finding a purpose. There, an old high school friend, Frankie, offers Londi a job with him cleaning pools. The rest of the novel follows one long day during which the two of them clean and interact with various eccentric characters as Londi comes to terms with who he is and the place he’s at in his life.
Laudati’s prose shows promise — he’s clearly adept when it comes to diction, and his sentence construction brings life to the otherwise overly-done premise of the novel.
The book, which takes place in the New Jersey suburbs, turns the setting into its own character, turning ordinary activities like drinking cheap beer or smoking outside of a 7-Eleven into poetic refrains about life.
Laudati’s picture of America in “Play the Devil” is worth noting for its bleakness and mediocrity, yet it still holds the idea of the American Dream in high regard; it’s an intriguing look at everyday life on par with ideas seen in classic works from authors like Jack Kerouac or Kurt Vonnegut.
However, emulating these authors also contributes to “Play the Devil’s” downfall.
Londi is a Holden-Caulfield-like character, questioning the world around him with an endlessly existential and cynical eye.
While in some cases this works, in the case of “Play the Devil,” it feels like a rip-off from any other novel about a young man trying to find his place in the world.
The existentialism acts as something for Laudati to fall back on in slow parts of the novel and often feels out of place in otherwise decent scenes.
The novel feels played out at times, searching for a fresh take on the plight of a male college dropout but coming up empty.
Laudati spends a little too much time on Londi’s internal monologue and therefore not enough time on the supporting characters such as Frankie, relegating him to witty one-liners and a fairly two-dimensional personality.
The point of “Play the Devil” is often lost to the reader, as Londi’s inner musings envelop a number of different topics that don’t seem cohesive, as if the author is screaming at the reader to pay attention, but the reader isn’t sure what they’re supposed to be paying attention to.
Without a true overarching theme of the novel, the points Londi attempts to make in his narration fall flat and come across as scatterbrained.
“Play the Devil” is not the next “Great American Novel,” but it demonstrates a kind of creative thinking from the author that hasn’t been present in contemporary fiction for quite some time.
While this novel isn’t the strongest debut, with a bit of fine tuning, readers should expect intriguing, philosophical works from its author in the future.