The Tourists: A Novel by Jeff HobbsThe Tourists: A Novel by Jeff Hobbs

The Tourists: A Novel

byJeff Hobbs

Paperback | August 12, 2008

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Meet the tourists, former classmates at Yale who, seven years later, must confront the people they've become while forging lives in Manhattan. David, a hedge fund wunderkind who forfeited idealism for wealth, hopes that a more fulfilling life lies ahead in the suburbs. His wife, the beautiful Samona, to whom David returns home nightly with nothing left for her, wonders whether her marriage is stripping away her best years. Ethan, a successful furniture designer with a magnetic sexuality, seeks something darker and more uncertain than the power lunches, needy family, and unsatisfying relationships that comprise his life. Rounding out the group is the story's unnamed narrator, a freelance reporter struggling to stay afloat -- financially, professionally, and emotionally -- who shares complicated histories with each of them.

When Ethan and Samona have a chance encounter at a gallery opening, they meet each other's needs. As our narrator traverses the city and gradually reconstructs the events that underlie the present circumstances, his own mysterious role comes into ever sharper focus. Only later, after David commissions Ethan to design some conference rooms at his firm and a secret triangle is formed, does our narrator begin to tie all the pieces together.

With The Tourists, Jeff Hobbs delivers a striking and stylish debut about the dark and sometimes destructive aspects of physical attraction and love, marital disillusionment, and the inevitable disappointments life can bring.
Title:The Tourists: A NovelFormat:PaperbackDimensions:336 pages, 8.44 × 5.5 × 1 inPublished:August 12, 2008Publisher:Simon & SchusterLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0743290968

ISBN - 13:9780743290968

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Read from the Book

1 A memory from eight years ago: It's late spring, our junior year at Yale -- a time when classes are getting easier and one lazy day starts following another until it seems as if winter never really existed -- and about a hundred of us are sitting on a quad lawn where the drama division is performing scenes from Love's Labour's Lost. I'm with Ethan Hoevel and the girl who introduced us earlier this year, and we're all just hanging there taking in the calm, cool night before the parties start and things get out of hand. The show drags on and the night air grows colder and we're wanting the thing to end so we can go on to the next thing, which is really all we ever want these days no matter where we are. And while an actor is crumpling under his heavy robes, his voice muffled by a white cotton beard, Ethan stops watching the play entirely and instead looks across the stage circle where David Taylor is sitting with Samona Ashley. We both know they're the new couple still in their beginning -- that dreamlike space where they aren't yet daring each other to say the words that might actually have a consequence and instead can just laugh while touching each other's face or steal a kiss in public that still feels intimate and exciting -- which is why it doesn't register with either of them that I've followed Ethan's gaze to David wrapping his arm behind her, his hand on the small of her back, or that I'm studying her face as she leans into his hand and rests her head on his shoulder and props her knee gently over his thigh. My feelings for Samona Ashley don't penetrate the world they're in. But still, as David takes her chin in his hand to kiss her, I can't help wondering how -- on this night, in this moment -- the dim light from a hundred dorm-room windows can give such an ethereal quality to their being together, and how it can illuminate so clearly their ignorance of all the awful things to come. When Samona prolongs the kiss by clasping her hands on the back of his neck -- her dark skin standing out sharply against his pale skin; her curly black hair intermingling with his straight auburn hair; her soft curves pressing his lean, angular limbs -- I force myself to turn to Ethan and murmur something vague and meaningless about the incompetent stage direction. But Ethan's not listening -- he's still watching them with an unsettled gaze. And even though I'm already aware that for Ethan Hoevel, just like for David Taylor and Samona Ashley, it's the beginning of something -- Ethan will announce that he's gay two weeks after this night in the spring of our junior year -- it will only be much later, after everything ends, when I'll be able to look back and imagine him visiting this moment often in his mind, always remembering this glimpse of David Taylor and Samona Ashley -- two people he doesn't even know -- as the beginning of something that he, Ethan, has ended. Eight mostly uneventful years passed after the night on the quad, punctuated by four or five address changes, professional stasis, the beginnings and requisite endings of a few minor relationships, and -- near the end -- the onset of that lonely, latent kind of panic which accompanies the realization that you can no longer afford not to know where your life is heading. And then it was mid-May in New York City: that fleeting window made up of no more than two or three weeks when everyone sheds their black coats in favor of bare skin, still winter-pale. The parks, cafés, boutiques, bars -- all of them were humming with skin seeing its first true daylight in months. It was a good time to teach yourself to live again, to learn all over what it's like to walk on the street with your head up. Which was why, when Ethan called around nine o'clock, I left my apartment on Tenth Street to go meet him. The guy who lived one floor below mine was sitting on the stoop, smoking a cigarette, his Doberman pulling on a choke chain as I slipped by, hugging the railing. I headed west past the Second Avenue Deli and St. Mark's Church, where the benches composed the usual gathering of homeless people staking their claim for the night alongside yuppie couples sharing Starbucks fruit salad out of clear plastic containers. A massive woman with hair down to her waist, knotted and dusty, stood in the center of the triangle of benches on grotesquely swollen bare feet. She called out in a honeyed voice: "One man suckin' another man's dick and no one knows what's right," saying it over and over before I hurried out of earshot, crossing diagonally down Stuyvesant to Ninth Street and Third Avenue. I stopped in a bookstore to browse new hardbacks I wanted but couldn't afford, and then on to Astor Place, trying not to stare as I walked around a cluster of spike-haired kids smoking cigarettes and dope, lounging around the big steel cube that sat in the center of the island, wearing T-shirts stained with crude-ironic slogans that I didn't understand. I turned down Lafayette, where the girls were already lining up behind a velvet rope for Wednesday-night karaoke at Pangea in hopes they looked enough like models to make it inside. I took Lafayette all the way down to Grand Street, where I turned west into SoHo, choosing my route more carefully now that I had to weave through couples window-shopping. I went south on West Broadway, hurrying past the chaos of Canal and into Tribeca with its way-past-their-prime rock clubs and new bistros that were never going to last. It was quieter down that way and I slowed my pace. The river was close and it was in the air: spring drifting fresh into the city from way up the Hudson where it was always cool. I smoked half a cigarette outside Ethan's loft on Warren and Greenwich because I was still feeling a little tense since he called -- he had that effect on me. Even the somber, folksy music coming down from the roof didn't help ease that tension. The doorman got up from his New York Post (cover: BROOKLYN MAN DROWNS IN PROSPECT PARK TRAGEDY) to punch in the elevator code. Ethan had never given it to me; his way of keeping me at arm's length. The elevator took a full two minutes to reach the ninth floor while I watched the slanting shafts of light crawl down the wall inside the cage. Then the door creaked open into Ethan's loft, which tonight was lit red by a Japanese crepe-paper lamp that sat near a window. It was the apartment that people in the city aspired to their whole lives: the entire ninth floor, long and wide, whitewashed hardwood, floor-to-ceiling windows looking down onto Warren Street, and filled with sleek furniture Ethan had designed himself. A faux-marble round pod -- half bedroom, half design studio -- occupied the center of the loft. Narrow walkways curved around either side of it past bookshelves and into a stainless-steel kitchen with a glass door refrigerator, inside of which a six-pack of Budweiser was waiting for me. I snatched two, moving around the stacks of cast-iron cookware from all over the world -- mementos of his frequent traveling -- and the exotic spice jars lined up behind the counter. Bay windows looked out over the river and beyond to Jersey City. In the far corner, a spiral staircase led to the roof. The door at the top was open and the music drifted toward me: Ani DiFranco in one of her less angry moods, which seemed okay for this kind of night. Ethan had his feet up on the wall facing west over the river where the Hoboken ferry was making its way toward the Jersey City lights. A half-full bottle of Domaines Ott sat in his lap next to an empty wineglass, which he filled as I settled in the lounge chair beside him. Ethan was tall, dark, wire-thin, recalling a handsome and much less freakish incarnation of Joey Ramone. It was chilly but there was no wind, so he was only wearing an undershirt and shredded vintage Wranglers. I pointed to five spotlights interweaving in the black sky above us. "What do you think those are?" He gazed at the lights and feigned deep concentration before answering, "Either a movie premiere or the warning of another terrorist threat?" "Moving in patterns...says...premiere?" He shrugged and sipped his wine and took the cigarette I was offering. I lit it for him casually. "Haven't heard from you in a while, Ethan." "I've been busy." He stopped to pour another glass of rosé. He seemed to consider something before adding, "Very busy, in fact." Then there was more silence until he started humming along with the Ani DiFranco song, which I recognized but couldn't name. "Busy with work?" I finally asked. "Not really -- no more than usual." "Traveling, then?" He shook his head. "Haven't been wanting to go away for a while. Maybe sometime soon." "Any...good parties, then?" I was flailing a bit. "Parties." He sighed. "I'm over it." He started humming again until the song ended. "But you first. What's really going on with you?" I took a drag to relax before telling him work was slow but steady and the apartment was a mess and I was really looking forward to summer -- the usual -- and I added that the last girl I'd allowed myself to get excited about, Amy, had found someone better -- actually her ex-boyfriend named "Brian something" -- and she'd said good-bye to me over the cell phone about two weeks before. He nodded and gazed out over the water while I talked. And after I finished -- without turning to me -- he asked, "So how'd she say it?" "Say what?" "Good-bye." "I think it was something like: 'I hope to catch up -- take care.'" Ethan put his smoke out and lit another as I added, "It's one of the last things you hear from a person who never wants to see you again, right?" "Definitely," he agreed, wincing. "Take care." "It's so fucking despairing." The word lingered as the disc changed to U2 and we just drank and took drags as "Where the Streets Have No Name" pulsed across the rooftop, and then we were nodding our heads to the music and didn't need to talk for a while because we'd both been in this place before -- some random night, the two of us sitting alone, letting the music amplify the moment until all its small details seemed far-reaching. Ethan tapped out the bass line on the armrest of my lounge, and I was studying his face in the dim cigarette glow while "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" faded in slowly. A light breeze swept through his hair, briefly lifting it away from his eyes. I realized that he hadn't looked at me tonight -- not directly -- and that his voice had been sounding so much softer and more distant than it usually did. I wondered why he'd called. Leaning forward to open the other beer, I tried to hide the hesitancy in my voice as I asked, "So what's...going on...with you?" "I'm sleeping with someone new," he said, seemingly offhand as he turned the music down and put out the half-finished cigarette. "Wait, is that what you're asking?" "Anyone I know?" "Actually, yeah. She is." I took a swallow of beer. "She?" He nodded. "A gorgeous girl. Just...really sort of...I don't know: she's gorgeous." "Gorgeous," I finally said. "That's so very poetic of you, Ethan." "I guess you would know since you're the writer," he replied evenly, ignoring my sarcasm. "But what else can I say? She's gotten to me." "Well, well, Ethan Hoevel's finally been had -- and by a woman, no less." I forced a laugh. "How do I know her?" "It's someone we went to college with." He chose this moment to turn toward me, and I leaned away -- that strange smirk etched onto his face made me anxious. He locked his arms over his head. His spine cracked. And a dull ache rose in my chest even before he said, "It's Samona." I was remembering dark and flawless skin. I was flashing on deep brown eyes, almost black. I was hearing the echo of that alluring, sultry voice. It still haunted me. "Samona Ashley," Ethan said. "You mean Samona Taylor, right?" The words streamed out with an unintended urgency. "Because you''re aware that she's...married, right? And that you still have a boyfriend. Right, Ethan? You're aware of these facts?" I shook my head slowly. He rolled his eyes, mocking me with his calmness. "How did I know you'd go there?" "It just seems there's a certain gravity here and -- " "Yes, but does the gravity have anything to do with the reasons you just stated?" He smiled suggestively while waiting for me to answer, but I could only keep shaking my head and sit deeper in the lounge chair. "Yeah, she's married," he went on quietly. "Yeah, I'm with Stanton. Yeah, it's wrong. But" -- he turned away again -- "only if you choose to see it that way." "Is there any other way to see it?" He sighed and opened another bottle of wine that was hidden in the corner by his feet. "Not for you, I guess." The intro to "With or Without You" drifted into the background, and we both became quiet. I sipped my beer and gazed around us. To the north the Credit Suisse, Chrysler, and Empire State buildings stood in an evenly spaced trifecta. And though the roof used to be nestled in the shadow of the World Trade Center before it fell, Wall Street was still a sharp skyline. East was the Brooklyn Bridge and the dim neighborhoods beyond. Then my beer was gone, and I took a deep breath. "And does Samona know, Ethan, that you're -- " "A fag?" He cut me off. "Well, I was going to say queer but...yeah." I paused. "Does she?" He didn't answer. I walked up the river toward Jane Street that night, and as I passed the Holland Tunnel, the roar of cars moving in and out of the city shook me with the realization that maybe by now -- as I walked along the water alone -- Samona was already in the lounge chair where I'd been sitting, and maybe she was whispering into Ethan's ear with that deep and sultry voice and maybe he was whispering things back to her, and maybe this whole thing had begun with that -- a whisper. There were so many questions that all of the answers seemed impossibly distant, and I didn't want to confront any of them. Because Samona Ashley had shown me once that the ultimate rejection resided in the silence of watching her walk away. Because even eight years of noise in New York City wasn't enough to purge that silence. Because jealousy was as undeniable as it was destructive. Back in my apartment, a deadline for an article was waiting: a vague, uninteresting piece I was writing up for The Observer about the redevelopment of a street on the Lower East Side, things everyone who read the Times or even the Post already knew. Meaning: I spent the following five days on hold with city officials or talking to Chinatown business owners in a language I didn't understand or having my computer crash on government Web sites. And since there was nothing to write anyway, I let myself be distracted by Ethan's far-flung eyes and the way he'd held his wineglass tight with all five fingers and the grating sound of his laughter and the moment he'd said her name so allusively. When Ethan Hoevel screened me on his cell a week later, I stammered something like, "Hey, it's me...uh, I don't know, just calling...I'm...around..." He didn't return the call, of course -- all I got from Ethan was silence. 2 Ethan disappears after we graduate college. School has been hard for him. After coming out near the end of our junior year at a traditional Ivy League university complete with the Gothic architecture that hides exclusive secret societies (which is only to say that it isn't an easy place for anyone to come out -- despite the large gay populace on campus and the generally liberal attitude), Ethan finds it especially stressful and needs to escape. So he graduates with honors -- the only Spanish-language and mechanical-engineering double major our school has ever produced -- and spends a year and a half teaching gym class to kids in small mountain villages in Peru. The rest of us take the more conventional route. I bring my belongings home to the suburbs outside Baltimore and spend two weeks explaining to my father (a mid-level accountant) why I "lack the necessary programming for business school" while assuring my mother (fourth-grade teacher) that I "will give serious thought to the kind of girls I have relationships with." And while I'm being strategically bombarded by these two people (who got married in 1964, and who never left the suburbs) I can't help but feel wholly indifferent to the basic assumptions they cling to regarding my life experiences thus far; I've outgrown any feelings of guilt associated with all the things they don't know about me. And while my father ruffles through the Baltimore Sun and my mother tries to misplace all my ripped jeans and black T-shirts, I streamline everything I have into a duffel bag and a backpack and board a train to Penn Station in Manhattan. "You want to be a what?" my father asks as I purchase my ticket. "You want to be a writer?" "No, not a writer," I reply brazenly. "A journalist. I just want to sit down with a pen and paper somewhere and figure out what intrigues me in this world." I stay a few weeks with a girlfriend on the Upper East Side and very soon she isn't a girlfriend anymore and I find new places to live because that's what young people do in the city -- that and find work. My first employment is as an associate editor three days a week for a duck-calling catalog. My career -- if you can call it that -- limps forward from there. I don't think about Ethan. I push him out of my thoughts until he doesn't exist. And when you're twenty-three and twenty-four and making your way in New York, you don't think about anyone, really, except yourself, so forgetting people is an easy game. I also do not want any memories of him because they are too painful and I cannot afford the distraction. In the end it isn't hard to do. His name is mentioned by various college friends, but as time goes on those friends become fewer. Meanwhile, moderate professional successes come and go: small bits in The Observer, The Sun, middling human-interest Web sites, a left-wing newsletter. I cover restaurant openings and book parties to pay the rent and do well enough to live in Brooklyn for a while ("Only six stops on the L!" I remind friends) and then -- after graduating to movie premieres and celebrity charity events -- a studio sublet in the East Village (sixth floor of a six-story walk-up, the stairs keeping me from the post-college weight all my friends are gaining). Ultimately, as I drift through these motions, the defiant idealism that appalled my father so deeply at the train station morphs into a jadedly self-aware fading of ambition. This happens in less than two years. Nothing intrigues me. When Ethan Hoevel and I finally cross paths again in November, two and a half years after graduation, it's one of those encounters that seem preordained. An editor at The Observer who has a long-standing crush on me and has thrown a significant amount of paying work my way because of that crush, invites me to a Chelsea gallery opening filled with young and pretentious New Yorkers, and I know it will be painful and hard to endure -- the usual -- but because of the way the city works, I find myself in the position of not being able to say no to the editor at The Observer who is burdened with the crush. Ethan sees me first. I am waiting at the bar for my fifth glass of wine. "Things fall apart." The voice is behind me. "The center cannot...hold?" I reply haltingly. "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." It is the preface to the one class we ever took together -- Literature of Imperialism, fall semester, junior year. The first book we read was Achebe's Things Fall Apart. And since the class was filled with irritating students who liked listening to themselves talk, Ethan and I would sit alone in the back of the room, where he scribbled unflattering caricatures of our classmates. That was also the semester Ethan played bass in a rock band called the Amber Blues and wrote a song (which became a hit at campus parties) about a guy missing an arm and a leg, pining for the woman he would never get. "It only takes one arm to hold you/but we have two hearts between you and me." (I have no idea why I remember those lyrics as clearly as I do.) I turn around. "Ethan Hoevel," I say, weaving a little from all the wine. "I wasn't going to say hi," he says. "I was going to let you enjoy getting on with your life while I got on with mine." "But you didn't." "Only because I'm bored and alone." "That sounds like a line of a pretty sad song, Ethan." Automatically we're back to the gentle sarcasm that couched all our conversations at Yale. "Don't you want to ask me what I do? Where I live? Why I'm at this ridiculous place?" he asks, staring straight at me. "Not really." He takes my arm and leads me to a small plastic cube on a pedestal in a corner. DRUGS, SEX, ROCK 'N' ROLL is its boldfaced title, Ethan Hoevel Designs in italics underneath. Inside the cube are three objects: a piece of plastic the shape and size of a credit card, one condom, and a pair of mini-headphones that looks like something a Secret Service agent would wear. I point to the plastic thing. "It's a bowl," he says flatly. "Like...for...?" "Pot." "Oh." "It fits in your wallet." Ethan shows me the small bulge running down the center that ends in a little concavity. "Somewhat clever." He shrugs. "Nothing brilliant." "I guess the real question is: Will it sell?" I ask. "Already has." "How much?" "I don't want to embarrass you." I don't know it now (I don't know anything, really, during this time) but since Ethan returned from Peru he's been quickly gaining a name for himself in the design world. New York is always in search of the next big thing in any field and somehow Ethan has become one of the select few in his. The speed with which he attained this notoriety is impossible. He has lived in different villages in the Andes Mountains for two years and then -- only six months later -- he's making a down payment on a dream loft in Tribeca. People I knew didn't do that. We leave the opening together. I tell the editor I'm feeling sick and don't think I can handle dinner but maybe sometime soon. Ethan and I go to a bar in the meatpacking district and he buys. He savors a martini (he hasn't yet acquired his taste for wine) as he tells me that in Peru all he did was snort too much coke, which -- it took him two years to realize -- he could have been doing here. "The moonshine snake brandy was kind of interesting, though." "Moonshine what?" "Actually, viper, to be more specific." "Well, that sounds like it would be intriguing until you drink it." "There's an actual dead viper fermenting inside the bottle. It's coiled up." "Aren't vipers poisonous?" "One bite can kill you." He shrugs. "Depends on the viper." And then I can't help myself. A rush of feeling courses through me. I have not seen Ethan for two and a half years and I grip his forearm. "Peru must have been so amazing, Ethan." Now that I'm fawning all over him, he stops talking about Peru but doesn't push my hand away. He lets it linger. Because of Ethan I get very drunk that night, even though he does not -- he chooses not to. When he decides to stop buying drinks that means it's time to leave. He mutters something about wanting to take a walk. The only thing I'm feeling as we put our coats on (it's winter now) is a flood of admiration existing just on the fringes of envy, which I have yet to realize is what most people feel in the presence of Ethan Hoevel. He has these deeply probing eyes that seem to absorb and admire everything about a person, and I can't help feeling special and wanted. Yet through the haze of feeling special and wanted, it strikes me that he must treat everyone this way, and that, really, in the end, I am not that special, I am not so wanted. It becomes apparent how little I have to say. My disappointment sobers me up slightly as we leave Pastis. Ethan says he's going to take a walk through the West Village to his new place in Tribeca. And then he asks me if I want to come. I pause briefly -- thinking about things, sorting them out -- and then say I do. "What do you remember about me?" he asks as we start walking. "Ethan," I warn. "No. Seriously. What do you really remember about me?" "You were in a band." "What else?" he asks. "I'm curious." "Now?" "You remember about us? Right?" "Yeah, Ethan, I remember about us." I say this with fake-heavy sarcasm but it comes out sounding wrong since I am so drunk. "Why are you asking me about that? It's in the past." He studies me curiously for a moment before saying, "Forget it." That he's just messing with me is obvious even through the haze. He's having fun trying to make certain memories -- the memories that seem dreamlike -- all too real again. The mood shifts and Ethan tells me I'm drunk and that it would be best for both of us if he sends me on my way. As he hails a cab I walk up to him, slurring my words. "Maybe I can help you, Ethan." "How?" "I mean with your work...maybe with my connections...I have a lot of them...I've been in the city awhile -- I know how it all goes down." "I'm sure you do," he murmurs, his arm raised, concentrating on the cabs coming down Ninth Avenue. "I've had a lot of success with this, Ethan." "That's really great," he says in a monotone. A cab cuts across three lanes and pulls up to where we're standing. "I think it's something you should consider...I'd be happy to help you..." Now I don't know where I am and I reach out to Ethan to steady myself. When I touch his arm I say genuinely, "And, yes, I do remember..." Ethan opens the door for me. I climb in, mumbling my address. Ethan gives the driver a twenty and watches from the curb as we drive away, and a few minutes later I'm passed out in my bed. When I wake up the next morning I start looking in my pocket for matches to light a cigarette. By the time I pull my hand out and his number is in it (when had he done that?), I've already figured it out. The one thing Ethan doesn't want or need is my help. Which brings me inevitably to a second conclusion: Ethan wants something more. Senior year at Yale Ethan becomes a myth. He locks himself in the mechanical-engineering lab up on a hill a mile away from campus to work on his senior project. Every month or so people glimpse him at meals and at the more notorious parties, dancing with guys, grinding it out to the hip-hop blasting from the wall of speakers before disappearing again, back to the lab. There are only rumors because no one knows what he is doing. Except me. I only see his senior project once: a single wing suspended in a glass vacuum, a confluence of art and physics. He calls me to come and visit him after he finishes it that April and I reluctantly agree to see him again after a year of barely seeing him at all. That walk up Science Hill is not easy -- the steep incline, the icy spring weather, and the fear of being alone with Ethan in a contained space far away from the quads and dining halls filled with people. I linger in the cold outside the building for ten minutes, seriously thinking about turning around. He doesn't say anything when I walk in. He just switches on the machine. Air flows through the vacuum at various speeds and angles, and the wing begins to oscillate according to predetermined graphs stacked on a table beside it, and it becomes clear that what Ethan has done -- what he has spent almost a year of his life doing -- is isolate one of the most beautiful and magical of worldly phenomena -- flight -- and strip away the beauty and the magic until there's nothing left but a form -- black and smooth and shapeless -- that he controls. A year of his life is inside this glass box, that dubious and uncertain final year of college. He has put himself in his claustrophobic lab surrounded by stacks of thick books about airplanes and birds and wind. The walls are covered with posters of jets and rockets, the Wright brothers, eagles, clouds, a map of the planets. He has created another world for himself. I glance around the room, then back at the box. I don't know what to say. When he sees my reaction he shoots me a disapproving look. I am in the lab at the top of Science Hill for less than ten minutes. Three months later Ethan Hoevel disappears into Peru. When Ethan comes back to New York two years later -- when he's just on the cusp of his wealth, his notoriety, his face in the magazines -- what I know of him still lingers in that little room on Science Hill. He is now a products designer -- mostly chairs and living-room settings. It is something he has done in his "abundant free time in Peru" -- creating forms in his mind that people could sit on -- where he has been inspired by "the simplicity of the chairs and benches" (this is a quote from a feature on Ethan in Dwell). But there is nothing simple about Ethan's designs, which are embodied in the type of chairs you see in SoHo (Interiority, Interiology, Format, King's Road Home) and which you never think of buying because they're all so ungainly and abrasive and expensive. The first piece I see of Ethan's -- coincidentally in a Tribeca store window a few days after our encounter -- is his most popular and lucrative: a gleaming silver aluminum sheet, maybe a few fingernails thick, that loops up and down like a breaking wave (which actually served as his inspiration; Ethan is from California and loves the ocean). It resembles an h in graceful script. My instinct is to consider it an eyesore -- sci-fi pretentious, obtrusive even in the darkest corner, outrageously other. And yet, over the next year, almost every engineering design firm and computer tech company in the country (this is all happening at the height of the Internet boom) will fill their conference rooms with full sets. Spurred on by this success, he'll begin designing tables and lamps and sometimes entire rooms to match them. His more earthy designs -- oranges and reds, plush cushions -- will find their way into boutique clothing stores in Nolita and yuppie bars in midtown, in Madison Avenue salons and West Village restaurants and lounges in the Flatiron district. He returns from the other side of the equator in the spring of 1999, and by the summer of 2000, it will be Ethan Hoevel Designs everywhere. But to me, when I meet him at the gallery in November -- where he's just part of a group show before his fame truly blossoms -- and he gets me drunk and he puts me in that cab on Ninth Avenue, Ethan is still the guy I was afraid to visit on Science Hill. The morning after, I'm staring at his phone number in my hand and realizing that for all his coolness the night before, Ethan Hoevel does, in fact, want something from me. The question he's asking me by slipping his number in my pocket is: Do I want something from him? Later, still severely hungover, and leaning toward the dusty floor to pick up a spoon I dropped while stirring my instant coffee, I make a decision to call Ethan. He doesn't answer. A few weeks later, when he jokingly informs me that he was standing there listening to my halting, fumbling message -- that he knew it was me and simply didn't pick up, that he was still keeping me at arm's length -- I am once again outside that lab at the top of Science Hill in my navy blue winter coat, wondering if I should go in. I try staying in touch but only sporadically. We are almost friends again but not quite. There is a new separation between us now. From various distances over the next few years I glimpse him walking into a bar or a nightclub or I pass him sitting with some hot guy in the corner booth of a new restaurant that I have to write up for New York. I find myself following the trajectory of his career in obscure magazines: the products' design that leads quickly to interiors, and then sets for music videos, and finally to art-directing a film for Miramax. His life flows on like someone's dream. He is seen and adored and he never has to look for work or invitations to parties or publicity or sex -- it all finds him, which is an anomaly in a city where the vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their time hopelessly seeking all of those things. But this dream is not necessarily Ethan's. From my vantage point -- that of a freelance writer who spends his days composing pitch letters to editors and arguing for bylines and jockeying for story space and waiting on hold for fact checks and hoping that I'll find someone, sometime -- I know he's dreaming of something else, and that for Ethan everything that is so effortlessly offered to him is just the busy surface of pseudo celebrity (which is why he travels so often -- to Costa Rica, to Mexico, to Iceland, to Japan, to all kinds of places, everywhere). Ethan Hoevel has a deeper need, and I will come to know (and I still believe I am the only one who will ever truly know) that it is a need for something darker. I know that what he really wants exists beyond the fame he's already promising himself that night at the gallery opening. My favorite chair of Ethan's is the most simple: two identical sunset-red circles, one for the seat and one for the back, connected with a single L-shaped aluminum tube that turns down into a sleek spider-leg swivel. It is one of the few things Ethan designs that don't sell very well, and on my twenty-sixth birthday he gives me a pair for my writing desk and breakfast table -- with the exception of a mattress, the only furniture I own. Copyright © 2007 by Jeff Hobbs

Editorial Reviews

"The Tourists sketches, with a light touch, characters who are almost chillingly familiarÉThey'll either make readers smile or bring back awful memories of the people they learned to put up with in college. Part of what's catching reviewers' eyes is a narrator who in the wrong hands would have been flat or dull but whose plight makes the book irresistible after the first few pages... [he] is appealingly quiet, reserved and observant." -- Scott Timberg, Los Angeles Times