With 'Gatsby' as his guide

Writer Jeff Hobbs has won plaudits for his debut novel / By VICTOR GRETO, The News Journal, Monday, June 11, 2007

WILMINGTON -- Jeff Hobbs is living proof that you can be young and modest and still write a very cool novel that gets compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald's best work.

At 27, Hobbs, who came of age in Wilmington, may be one of the hottest young fiction writers in the country, since his first novel, "The Tourists" (Simon & Schuster, $24), was published this spring.

The book, about manipulative 20-somethings in New York City figuring out who they are and what they want, has garnered generally positive reviews, especially in Los Angeles, where Hobbs and his wife, Jennifer, live.

A Los Angeles Times reviewer compared the book to Fitzgerald's masterpiece, "The Great Gatsby."

Really, though, "The Tourists" has but two things in common with "The Great Gatsby" -- its clear and self-confident prose style and the use of an insightful narrator.

But that's more than enough to put it notches above the competition.

The story pivots on the narrator, a freelancer in love with both a gay man and a straight woman, the latter two of whom have an unlikely affair that disrupts all the major characters' lives.

Sitting in the closed-in porch of his parents' home near Rockford Park on a sunny afternoon last week is a recently clean-shaven Hobbs -- in his picture on the book jacket he has a speckled growth of beard, but he "shaved for mom's benefit."

Hobbs sports a curiously late 1970s swirly haircut and sideburns. He's tall (just shy of 6 feet) and thin (150 pounds). He could pass for a high school student.

In fact, he had spoken the day before to students at Tower Hill School, where he excelled not all that long ago.

"It was flattering they asked me to talk," he said of his high school. He smiled sheepishly and looked away.

"I'm not sure that it's shy so much as humble," said Sandy Hobbs of her son's attitude. "Jeff doesn't put himself forward -- that's not his comfort level. But he's always been very self-confident."

He seems almost embarrassed by his success, perhaps even by the power of his writing.

Or maybe he's not embarrassed at all.

Maybe he's just cool.

Because Jeff Hobbs is a very good writer.

A fateful injury

Although Jeff's parents, Chuck and Sandy Hobbs, grew up in Delaware, they raised their four children in a large house in Mendenhall, Pa.

At 3, Jeff broke his leg jumping off a jungle gym. When he was in traction for three weeks and then in a cast for five, his parents took turns reading to him.

That's when he fell in love with storytelling and decided he wanted to be a writer, Hobbs said.

He read constantly, fantasy by Isaac Asimov and Lloyd Alexander as a boy, but later the literary bigwigs. He now counts Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo and Andres Dubus as favorites.

When Jeff began 10th grade at Tower Hill, the family moved to Wilmington, near the school. His two older siblings were attending Yale.

Hobbs followed his brother and sister to Yale, where he ran on the track team -- and only occasionally felt uncomfortable with fellow students, many of whom hailed from more elite prep schools and backgrounds.

At Yale, he said, "I wrote two crappy novels. I learned what not to do as I went along."

That is, he got out of his system the nakedly autobiographical impulses within which many young writers drown themselves in their first fiction.

He graduated in 2002 with a degree in language and literature -- and a couple of college writing awards to his credit.

He moved to New York City and lived with his older brother, Bryan.

New York proved to be a great career move, even though he originally planned to become a high school teacher.

"I liked my teachers at Tower Hill," Hobbs explained.

But after mentoring middle school children, he decided teaching wasn't for him.

Hobbs engaged his brother, who arranged corporate events for a living, in long talks and booze-inspired conversations.

"Bryan had gotten his heart broken a couple of times," Hobbs said, and it gave Hobbs an idea for a story, a novel about the amorphous nature of relationships. It became "The Tourists."

"Writing is a cheap hobby," he said, so he could indulge himself up to 10 hours a day. His practice is to write everything in longhand first.

While working on the book that would become "The Tourists," Hobbs found a job as a grant writer and grass-roots organizer for the African Rainforest Conservancy.

Unlike Fitzgerald who famously described the rich as being different than the rest of us, Hobbs said he realized at the ARC's fundraisers and events that the rich are just like everyone else; some were passionate about the cause, while others just came to be seen.

The job proved fortuitous, because at one of those fundraisers he met "American Psycho" author Bret Easton Ellis, who became his mentor after he read Hobbs' working manuscript.

Ellis helped Hobbs pare the book from 360 pages to 303. "He gave me a road map and pointed me in the right direction," Hobbs said

By then, Hobbs had met his future wife, Rebecca, through a mutual friend who raved to her about Hobbs' manuscript.

It must have been a great first date, because Rebecca spoke to him passionately about the book.

Rebecca is five years older than Hobbs, so he injected his fictional talents early into their relationship by lying about his age.

"I told him I wouldn't marry someone born in the 1980s," Rebecca said.

She found out his true age just before they were married, when she noticed Hobbs' passport and told him he needed to fix his birth date.

"Uh, no, maybe not," Hobbs mumbled to his betrothed. "I've been meaning to tell you ..."

It didn't stop her from marrying him in 2005.

"Gatsby" as guide

"I wrote it for fun," Hobbs said of his book. "I didn't think of it as 'literary' in any way."

Then again, he admits he purposely modeled his narrator after Nick Carraway, rereading "Gatsby" to see how the master did it.

But unlike Carraway, Hobbs' narrator remains nameless and, in the end, seems as lost to his surroundings as the confused characters he describes.

"My narrator is fixated on these people, almost embarrassed by them," Hobbs says.

To some degree, all the characters feel as precious as its central figure, furniture designer Ethan Hoevel, whose magnetism and manipulative nature make everyone miserable.

Hobbs' dispiriting ending and his narrator's culpability contrast markedly with the idealistic longing and mature perspective of Fitzgerald's book.

Hobbs' characters, awash in sexual confusion, ambition, brand names and style, undermine any useful knowledge of themselves.

By contrast, the end of "Gatsby," which ends as sadly, looks forward: "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther ... and one fine morning --"

That fine morning has yet to come.

But the clarity of Hobbs' prose bodes well for its dawning.

Contact Victor Greto at 324-2832 or
Reprinted with permission of The News Journal