Riding Tigers by James Schneider: The Best 21st Century Novel You Haven't Read
By Bryan Caplan
James Schneider, my best friend from Princeton, has written my favorite novel of the 21st century, entitled Riding Tigers. I’d compare it to A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s a coming-of-age story filled with quirky characters, a plot that keeps you guessing, and great dialogue. As you might guess, Riding Tigers has quite a few economists in the story: the lead character is the son of a Princeton economist, and the anti-heroine is finishing up her dissertation. But unlike most economist-novelists, Schneider gives economic education a backseat to character development, dialogue, and real human feeling.
A few of my favorite passages:
From chapter 1:
David asked, “Isn’t it against the rules to paint on the ceiling?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she smiled, and then quickly her expression changed to a mock accusatory scowl, “Why? Are you going to hand me over to the housing authority?” Kristi was a quiet, cooperative person who left a small footprint on her surroundings, but she took evident pleasure that someone might find her even the slightest bit rebellious.
“You didn’t think to ask? They might charge a hefty fine. I mean your door is wide open?”
Kristi said, “I’m very superficial – in the sense of being on the surface – I don’t try to hide what I’m doing. Financial repercussions don’t bother me. If there is a fine, then I will pay it, or I suppose more accurately my father will. He is a great patron.”
From chapter 4:
They came across a log cabin.
Slash said, “This is where I lived the summer before ninth grade into the winter until Christmas day.”
“You lived here in the winter time. Wasn’t it cold?”
“I’ll let you in on a teacher’s secret,” Slash explained patiently. “There is such a thing as a stupid question.”
They peaked inside the cabin where there were three military-style cast iron beds, two of which were joined into bunk beds. “My brother and I slept here,” Slash pointed to the bunk beds. “The other bed is where my mom and dad slept. Clothes were changed under the covers, during the summer for modesty’s sake, during the winter because the freezing cold left no choice. This stove barely threw out any heat, and as you can see the insulation was not that great.” The cabin was built by laying one log across another. Smaller branches were nailed in between the longer branches to obstruct drafts. “When we lived here, we stuck clumps of moss between the smaller branches to block the wind. Originally, there would have been entire sections of the wall that were sealed off from the wind. The moss would eventually fall to the ground and have to be replaced.”
From chapter 6:
When Mark and his father were in the same room, a palpable tension soaked the air like summer humidity. The father recognized that the son was fundamentally evil and therefore could not tolerate being in his presence.
Mrs. Parkers took a more complacent, even Zen-like attitude about her son’s moral sensibility. It isn’t that her son’s turpitude didn’t occasionally cause her pain, but to her, being a mother transcended these concerns. Ordinarily, motherhood would have compelled her to fight tirelessly to improve her son, but his imminent demise nullified this duty. Mark’s mother felt entitled to simply enjoy the few days that she had left with her son. The father had the diametrically opposite reaction to his son’s near death. He simply stopped engaging his son in conversation. For years, he screamed, yelled, scolded, and admonished his son. But knowing that his son would die soon, what was the point? Mark Parker was a problem that would solve itself.
And perhaps the single funniest passage to me:
“How long has your wife been missing?”
“Sir, feel free to call again in forty-five hours, if she does not return.” There was an embarrassed pause, and then the women said, “Since I don’t expect to hear from you in forty-five hours, I’d like to say now that I wish I had someone that worried as much about me. Have a good day.”
Dr. Stanford interrupted before she could hang up, “What do you mean that you don’t think I will be calling again?”
The women on the other end hesitated and then said, “A woman who is missing for three hours really isn’t missing. Myself, for instance, I often tell my husband that I’m going to run to the grocery to pick up milk, and then I drop by the mall on the way home and spend three hours trying on pants. Were you at home when your wife left the house for the last time?”
“Was she going to the grocery to pick up milk?”
“No, she went for a run.”
“She was wearing athletic clothes?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Then in all likelihood she didn’t drop by the mall on the way home.”
“Exactly. Now you know why I’m so concerned?”
“No, not really. The fact still remains that she has only been gone for three hours. Look, let me try to explain this in a way you can understand. Everyday in New Jersey, thousands of women are a few hours late coming home. Almost none of them come to a sorry end, that means…”
Dr. Stanford answered bitterly, “I know what that means, I teach economics at Princeton for God’s sake.” To the operator this seemed like a non sequitur that she attributed to the man’s distress.
I’m not sure how many copies Jim wants floating around the internet, but he’s a friendly guy. Email him if you’d like to ask for a copy.