The Radicals by Ryan McIlvain

The Radicals

Ryan McIlvain

A fiercely intelligent, wonderfully human illustration of friendship, empathy, and compassion in the midst of political upheaval.

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An intimate, suspenseful, and provocative portrait of friendship and love at its limits, and a timely exploration of class tensions and corporate excess in America

When Eli first meets Sam Westergard, he is dazzled by his new friend's charisma, energy, and determined passion. Both graduate students in New York City, the two young men bond over their idealism, their love of poetry, and their commitment to socialism, both in theory and in practice—this last taking the form of an organized protest against Soline, a giant energy company that has speculated away the jobs and savings of thousands. As an Occupy-like group begins to coalesce around him, Eli realizes that some of his fellow intellectuals are more deeply—and dangerously—devoted to the cause than others. 

A fiercely intelligent, wonderfully human illustration of friendship, empathy, and suspicion in the midst of political upheaval, Ryan McIlvain's new novel confirms him as one of our most talented and distinctive writers at work today.

Advance Galley Reviews

It's amazing that it all comes down to relationships, no matter what the story. McIlvain does a great job of showing how those relationships can alter the course of your life.

Eli is a grad student at NYU who can’t seem to finish his thesis. His field of study is Socialist Theory, but Eli is no radical. He is introspective, indecisive, and pessimistic, and he seems to have lost any fervor he might once have had towards Marxist theory. He befriends Sam, a graduate student pursuing a MFA in poetry. Sam is all that Eli is not: charismatic, spontaneous, driven towards action over idealistic discussion. This novel is the story of their friendship and is also the story of the destruction of both of their lives. The story is told from the perspective of Eli, who follows along in Sam’s wake and seems helpless to change the trajectory of either Sam’s or his own path. Eli tutors Sam in Socialist Theory, but theory alone is not enough for Sam. Sam becomes involved in protesting the actions of a company called Saline (think Enron), which has left its former employees without jobs, pensions, & even homes, as they inevitably face foreclosure due to nonpayment of their mortgages. Eli travels with Sam to Arizona to join in a protest over the impending eviction of one of Soline’s former employees. This protest, in reality, only hurts the affected homeowner, as the activists decline (on moral grounds) to pass on an offer that would have allowed this person to stay in the home. Frustrated with the relative ineffectiveness of this peaceful protest, Sam joins a smaller group of more radical activists. This group includes Alex, a former girlfriend of Eli, and she and Sam become a couple. This group lives together in a house/headquarters, relies on petty crime and contributions from clueless parents to pay living expenses, and focuses its wrath on the former CEO of Soline, who continues to live his wealthy life unscathed. Eli eventually joins this group of radicals and moves in with them, having dropped out of school, lost his job, lied to his parents, and ruined his relationship with the very non-radical woman who was the love of his life. And things only go downhill from there for both Eli and Sam. Eli’s passive response to Sam’s escalating emotions and restless need to act results in Sam bringing Eli along on the ride of his life and of Sam’s ultimate death. There are no happy endings here, just a lot to ponder. Was this ending inevitable? What was the point of no return for Eli? Was it the moment he met Sam? Thank you to Penguin books and the First to Read program for the opportunity to read and review this book in return for an honest review.

I have to say that I really didn't enjoy this book very much. It was a push for me to get through this. The writing was good. I just really wasn't interested in the story very much. I like to try to expand beyond my normal genres. This story is about two friends who meet in grad school and come of age. I just could not get into the characters or the storyline very much.

I received an ARC of this book from First to Read in exchange for an honest review. "Radicals" started out interesting with a hit and run and a car chase. But, I soon lost interest. I just couldn't connect with the characters or the writing style.

The cover page says "The Life and Death of Sam Westergard" and the story beings with the narrator and Sam playing a game of tennis. "I couldn't have known I was standing across the net from a murderer, and neither could he." Reading this sentence on the first page, I was intrigued and pulled into the book, but unfortunately I did not continue to feel that way. The story follows graduate students (soon to be ex-grad students) on their socialist journey against a large energy company that has left many people without jobs and bankrupt. The story is clearly based off of real happenings, but the writer does not go into enough detail about the connection between the socialists and the company - I wanted to feel more of a correlation between why the characters where so vehemently against the energy company and its CEO. The writing is good, the characters start out interesting, but the story is just boring. I could not get into the story. It took too long to get to the real focal point of the novel and I'm not sure that it was enough to base a novel around. If the characters were on a different journey or involved in another story, I think I would have liked them better. There was just not enough depth to this story, which was a bummer because it was well written. Honestly, I don't know if I would have finished this book had it not been an ARC that I needed to write a review for. The story was slow and did not hold my attention. I would not recommend investing your time into this book.

We meet up with the protagonists in their grad school years and follow them through a 'coming of age' as they try on philosophical, political, and career identities. We watch as they attempt to individuate, and yet as they 'find themselves' only via attraction to, and within the supposed safety of, 'group think.' To me it read as a map to how fervor for a cause can sweep up those in the throes of feeling lost and purposeless. Though the early storytelling meandered, that slow feeling paralleled the daily lives of the characters during that period. If we stick with it, we reach a page-turning mystery. A train wreck I couldn't look away from, I grew understanding of how people become extreme and how tragedies can come of idle chatter tempting people over the line into action. In spite of that I'm left with feeling the senselessness of the seduction, and the question of just what it is that makes some vulnerable to the pull of religious or political cults or groups, and what of their lives could have been changed to avoid it? Overall, a good read I'd recommend.

Honestly, I just didn't like this book all that much. I struggled to get through it. If I hadn't been reading it for First to Read, I probably would not have finished it. I found the characters all insufferable. There wasn't anything appealing about them to me. Their entitlement made their radicalization feel inauthentic to me. I think in our modern moment of authentic protest driven by diversity, these upper-crust white kid protesters who went back to their comfortable lives between protests grated on me. I do think McIlvain did some of that purposefully. After all, he centers some of the book around his characters protesting on behalf of a Latina woman who is going to lose her home. The characters do seem to wrestle at least a little with how they are actually benifitting this woman. In the end, though, they are willing to sacrifice her needs in order to make a bigger point. Ultimately, their protests are driven by ideals, not the needs of actual people. The first two-thirds of the book passed very slowly for me. I just couldn't connect with the characters and struggle to get invested in their crusade or the details of their lives. The climax of the book caught me off guard and did pull me in enough to propel me to the end. I wish more of the book had been like the ending. I'm disappointed that I was so disappointed by this book. I can't say I recommend it, though I'm sure there are plenty of other people who will enjoy it more than I did.

It was an absolute SLOG to get through this book. The characters were irredeemably unlikable, the "plot" didn't even really get going until 180-ish pages in, and there were a ridiculous number of rambling tangents and asides that had ZERO to do with the story. Skip.

This book was okay; not the best book I have ever read, but certainly not the worst, either. If I had a better understanding of philosophers, I probably would have liked it better. Because I do not, the constant references to them caused me to feel as if I was missing something. The book was well-written and overall enjoyable with a relatable storyline. I would recommend to anyone who likes modern novels.

Ryan McIlvain seems to define his fiction niche in which he explores coming of age brotherhoods—not the familial or adolescent types, but the fraternity of young men in organizations either religious or political. McIlvain’s first book, Elder, considered friendship between two Mormon missionaries. His new novel, The Radicals, follows two young men enamored or dabbling (hard to tell which early on) in socialist theory. It’s not uncommon for people who are examining ideas and values new to them to be caught up in ideological passion, Mormonism and Marxism not excluded. Eli opens the narrative with his recollection of meeting Sam Westergard in class. Later, they take each other on in tennis. Eli is a graduate assistant who feels his teaching, grading, and life are underpaid, which is a rather un-Marxy start. He isn’t angry or deprived, but he knows he isn’t what might be considered a great success. While he may not own designer tennis shirt or a new sporty car, he is hyper-aware, and frankly appreciative, of style and quality of clothing, furniture, vehicles, and other material objects. Although he doesn’t outright embrace conspicuous consumption, he does not outright revile it. When he and Sam hit the tennis court, there is a further sense of disingenuousness, if not hypocrisy: Sam and Eli are two academics pretending not to be interested in their tennis game. Both are highly competitive, and their respective noses will be out of joint at losing the game. It’s hard to warm up to these two, what with their taking courses on Marxist theory out of boredom or idle curiosity, yet expending real thought on how to get that ball over the net. Eli senses the hours and isolation of working on his doctorate are alienating him from society, so he finds the idea of a collective appealing. Make a difference, and all that. Conversations start, books are exchanged, and friendship turns to comradeship. Eli and Sam willingly go deeper and join a plan to turn theory into action. This story traces that sojourn from idealistic commitment to painful reality. McIlvain provides some delightful or at least interesting images and phrasing. Eli describes his book-filled walls “like wainscoting. . .better that than IKEA shelves.” He feels a “timeworn, almost velvety twenty dollar bill.” But quickly there is repetition of imagery that doesn’t move the plot or deepen characterization. McIlvain and/or Eli seems to have a thing for freckles, and this leads to some embarrassing description, such as noting a young woman has freckles on her face “like drips in a Pollock painting.” A few pages later, her freckles are a “pale constellation” on her “waxen face.” Those freckles must have a life of their own. The freckled Pollock imagery will reappear again during a sexual interlude. Eli invokes Pollock yet again, this time in relation to his apron sprinkled with pizza sauce. There are enough art references to convince the reader that the narrator has paid attention in his survey coursework. Eli seems deliberately portrayed as having enough exposure and appreciation to culture to avoid being labeled a Philistine, maybe. But he also seems superficial. Whether this is intentional depends upon whether you want to read The Radicals ironically, as a full blown cautionary tale, or a pale imitator. Other novels about radical thinking and action come to mind while reading this novel, but two in particular whisper comparisons in the ear. Vida, written by Marge Piercy and published in 1979, relates the plight of a young woman living underground on the run from the law for her 1960’s involvement in political action (i.e. a bombing) through a group (i.e. a thinly disguised Weatherman). Vida is very clear and passionate about her beliefs and values, which remain consistent. She has protested the Viet Nam War and tried to protect the environment. But the world changes, bad things proliferate. She loses her bright-eyed optimism and is both a wide-awake victim and perpetrator. The story follows her adventures underground amidst memories and attempts to stay true to her beliefs. The other novel is Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov, like Sam and others, considers that some people are a true drain on society, and the world would be better off without them; hence, killing is not only justified, but necessary, even if only as a mathematical exercise. This is a rather glib summary of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece. Raskolnikov is a truly starving academic whose mother and sister suffer in order that he might go to university to make something of himself. He is trapped in a deeply hierarchical society and bears witness to atrocities, including rape of a girl and poverty-driven prostitution. His target abuses her mentally handicapped sister and preys pre-reformed Scrooge-like on the poverty level working class. Even so, Raskolnikov takes murder as no clear thing. His fever-wracked mind cannot divine whether evil truly exists, and if it does, that perhaps things are just as they should be. His intellect and spirit war within. It’s hard to take Eli seriously given his presumption that his time on this planet has rendered him “worldly-wiser now, wry, and unillusioned and yet still beatific enough to believe in causes.” In an early conversation with Sam, the narrator talks about his experiences with the International Socialist Organization and how they are demanding that the university disclose property and business dealings, thereby exposing the school’s capitalist nature. Meanwhile, Eli cannot be arsed to grade papers because he is plagued with nihilism, or perhaps just exhaustive ennui. All of this is to say our narrator is not exactly endearing. He moans, “What did it really matter what thirties- era radicals did to try to disrupt the New Deal? Why history? Why yesterday? Wasn’t Time’s winged chariot assembling now, and now, and now?” Knowledge of history and yesterday are worthless, tedious, and irrelevant to someone about to act on a not-very-new theory? Eli and Sam lack the true innocence of Vida and are out of their league with Raskolnikov both philosophically and in terms of real suffering. Too often Eli spouts lines he doesn’t believe in. And while he wants love, fairness, and other general ideals, he is unable to examine fully his thinking and actions. The plot brings epiphany at a price, and what will happen to Eli becomes the overriding interest here. McIlvain does a good job exposing the self-justified and soft-logical.

I found this work to be slow in the build up, and too technical to follow it comfortably, I was able to pick some references, but the rest of them I have no clue what was this about. Not to sound harsh, but I fear this work is way above my normal reading level.

This book tried way too hard! Pretentious and so boring! Next!

I had very high hopes for this novel. The premise was intriguing and made it sound a bit like 'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt updated to the more recent Occupy movement. Unfortunately, I could not make it all the way through this book. Both the characters and the writing were insufferable.

Ryan McIlvain The Radicals was a intriguing novel about a variety of relationships of college students who are involved in political activism. As the novel, opens we are introduced to the main characters Eli and Sam, whose friendship and activism take us through the novel. I do not want to give away to much of the novel. I enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to others.

The Radicals was a wonderfully written and intriguing novel about two graduate student friends who become involved in a political activism group, the actions of which grow ever more dubious until they culminate in a shocking event. I loved the friendship between Eli and Sam and the suspicion and paranoia within their group was really effectively done. The plot was very unpredictable and I always found it exciting. The worst thing about The Radicals for me was the relationship between Eli and Jen. I have rarely read such a stomach-turning depiction of a relationship, Jen seemed insufferably smug and Eli pathetic. I wish most of this had been edited out to allow more room for the development of the story about Eli, Sam and their involvement in political activism. Overall however, I really enjoyed the book, would recommend to others and would read more by the author.

The Radicals is a novel about college, relationships, friendship, and political activism. Although interesting at times, it was hard to maintain my interest.

Ryan McIlvain's novel, "The Radicals", is described as an "illustration of friendship, empathy, and suspicion in the midst of political upheaval", however I found it showed a different depiction of friendship, one that I would not have categorized as being friendship at all. As I read I saw characters that interacted and did things together and yet lacked the strong relationship I associate with friendship. Through Eli's point of view I get a strong physical description of Sam and an intellectual analysis of Sam's possible motivations, however there are no emotional ties binding the two in a traditional friendship relationship. As Sam comes in and out of Eli's life, I get no sense of loss or joy from him. The shocking ending might have been more difficult and emotional if I had felt that there was an stronger connection between the two characters. However, McIlvain's writing is engaging and keeps the pace quickly moving throughout the book. He introduces us to many interesting characters that enriched the story more. Perhaps, McIlvain's intent is to have the reader question the traditional friendship relationship, in which case he has succeeded.

A well-written story about stomach-turning characters. There seems to be a current in literature that strives to keep characters real by making them despicable, and this book swims deep in that river. I'm not jumping in. There are many real people in my life that do examine their own actions with a conscience, and I would consider these fictional characters in The Radicals aberrations. As such, if a story is not driven by characters, it usually requires a compelling idea, a well-examined ideology, or at least a gripping plot, and I feel like the book fell short. Perhaps it was reaching for the ideology, a political commentary on utopian-minded leftists, but it didn't get there for me. But man, as much as I resented spending time with these characters, I did it anyway, almost as if I didn't have a choice. The writing was so focused and clean, even while living in the head of a cerebral but somehow also thoughtless protagonist, it pulled me forward. When my schedule required that I put the book down, I was reluctant to pick it up again, but while I was reading, putting it down was the farthest thing from my mind. I really have to hand it to McIlvain in writing skill alone. I'd certainly be interested in his other work if he comes up with a character I can stand. The whole experience of readership for this book was somewhat mystifying and amazing for me. I got a copy to review from First to Read.

I liked The Radicals. I had not experienced a book like this before. The plot describing drop-out grad students who are involved in resolving social action issues brought on by greedy corporates – interesting!! I felt the descriptive prose affected me as well. It was written in such a way as to force me to read slowly, savoring every image and description. Personally it appealed because of familiar locales: NYC, Arizona and Zion National Park, to name a few. It’s obvious to me, reading other reviews that this book is not for everybody. To me, it was an entertaining and worthwhile read.

I could not even get 20 pages into this book without giving up. It was extremely pretentious and was a lot of worthless dribble. I believe that a lot of people will have the same experience. The main character needed to be approachable and someone that you could care about.

As much as I would have liked to enjoy this book, it just wasn't for me. Honestly, I did not finish it, as after 50 pages I couldn't bring myself to continue on. It had an interesting premise, but I was bogged down by the language, which felt cumbersome rather than sophisticated. I also had a difficult time connecting with the characters who came off pretentious and entitled (perhaps that is why they seemed so disillusioned). I'm sure there are others who would enjoy this narrative, but I am passing.

This book wasn't for me. The first two chapters bored me and were way too preachy

I had high hopes for this novel, but they ultimately weren't met. It was something that I never felt engaged in, something that felt like a task to which to return. While not a terrible book, it isn't one that I'll remember as worth talking about.

The premise of this novel intrigued me: failed grad students get caught up in an Occupy-like movement and things go too far. Unfortunately, I disliked all of the characters so much, I stopped caring about what happened to them, so the plot itself meant little to me. The main characters all seemed pretentious and arrogant, and there was little character development beyond that. I never got a good handle on WHY any of the characters made the choices, or behaved, that they did. I can't tell if the author made everyone purposely unlikeable, and at the end of the day, I guess it doesn't matter This read a little like a lite version of a Franzen novel to me. It's well-written, and I feel like I SHOULD like it, but I don't.

First book of 2018 for me. I personally wish that we could have gotten some of Sam's inside thought and point of views. Just seeing a lot from the outside and from Eli's point of view just didn't match up with the story. Eli was too whiny and indisisive. He didn't truly fit even the idea of a radical. Just a follower.

This book was a poignant reminder of what it’s like to be growing up then expected to be grown up in such a short time span. What happens when one isn’t ready for the real world and then is influenced by those that are in the real world but have no idea what the real world is? Ideals are ill-formed, peer pressure sets in, immature decisions lead to rash behavior then tragedy strikes. The story centers on Eli – an immature grad student that isn’t ready to graduate – and his push & pull struggle between what is present and what could be. On one hand, he has a beautiful, talented girlfriend that loves him and their life that could be, that should be, all it needs is time and maturity. On the other hand, he has a best friend that is radicalized and daring - who just so happens to be romantically involved with Eli’s first real girlfriend; his world is exciting and dangerous. Eli’s real problem is he can’t make up his mind…ever. He fluctuates between both worlds wearing two faces. Eventually, as we all know, the worlds will collide. This is Eli’s story. I gave this story three stars for the excellent writing but it fell short of four stars in character development. I received an advanced copy of this book in electronic format from in exchange for an honest review. This review is also posted to

I could not finish this book, narrated by the most pretentious white male character, about white male characters - read like "The Secret History" or other similar books about revolting people.


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