Sutter Keely, our narrator and main character, is as oblivious as they come. He's only focused on his own thoughts and feelings and desires, and so he either completely misses or grossly misunderstands other people's words and actions.
Like, the reason Cassidy breaks up with him comes down to the fact that he wasn't listening when she gave him an ultimatum. We see it directly from Sutter's perspective and everything: "Here we go. Lecture time. And I'm sure what she's saying is right. […] I just can't keep my mind focused on it when she's sitting there right next to me looking like she does" (3.33). Truth: doesn't this sound a little like your internal monologue when your dad is lecturing you about taking responsibility for your actions.
He doesn't want her to be mad at him—that affects his world and Sutter's #1 priority is making sure nothing changes, ever—so he'll pretend to pay attention just enough to calm her down. Still, her feelings about their relationship don't penetrate into his universe in any real way—meaning that underneath that nodding exterior, he's totally zoned out.
But Sutter isn't just oblivious to the things that might hurt him. He's also oblivious to the things that might actually help him—like Aimee's love and concern. Even after everything Aimee has said and done, he still can't believe she really loves him: "Of course, I'd believe someone loved me," he says. "It just seems like that's pretty impossible to know for sure" (65.2).
Sutter is so oblivious that he really thinks Aimee will be happier without him. He's trapped inside his own head, completely wrapped up in the version of reality that he's created.
The Spectacular Now is like a coming-of-age novel that stalls out on the exit ramp to adulthood. Sutter fits the profile of a coming-of-age protagonist—a kid having to come to terms with growing up, making his way through various problems that help him realize important truths about himself and the world.
But. This particular kid ends up aborting the mission right as he's about to launch. Instead of leaving us feeling satisfied and hopeful about his future, the end of this book frustrates and depresses us—and we're betting it frustrated and depressed you, too.
The reason? Sutter deliberately chooses not to grow up. He rejects maturity, and spits in the face of adulthood. He's like a sad, drunk Peter Pan, using whiskey to fly instead of pixie dust.
"The Spectacular Now": sounds wild and exciting, right?
Eh, not so much. There's a reason your parents keep telling you to think about your future: the older Sutter gets, the more destructive the choice to live in the now becomes.
Sure, at first, it's all about partying and fun. "This stage in the life of the buzz is truly fabulous," Sutter tells us. "This stage says, […] (t)o hell with tomorrow. To hell with all problems and barriers. Nothing matters but the Spectacular Now" (53.10). This attitude lets him kick back and be the wild party animal he's known for being.
But if you're reading carefully—which, duh, of course you are—you'll know that this isn't Sutter talking: this is the whisky talking. And that would be dangerous enough. But by the end, Sutter is using the same phrase to mean that he'll never have a future, and that there's no hope for him. The book's last lines drive home this point: "Goodbye, I say, goodbye, as I disappear little by little into the middle of the middle of my own spectacular now." (66.27)
Yeah. Not too cheery. In the end, all Sutter has is the drunken present to look forward to—which means that he doesn't have anything at all. It's spectacular, all right – spectacularly horrific.
Depressed. Hopeless. Frustrated. That's what you feel when you finish The Spectacular Now, right? This sure a feel-good story, even though "spectacular" is right there in the title.
See, our protagonist gets stuck. He starts to change, he's almost there … and then he's sucked back into an even darker version of his old life. At the end of the book, Sutter is completely wasted, wandering around the gravel parking lot of a run-down bar, alone, after having spent the evening with the creepy old drunks inside. What's worse is that he's happy about it. The whiskey makes him think it's beautiful—so beautiful that he can't even see how pathetic and tragic his situation is. He's giving up on life before his life has even begun. And that's why we're depressed.
Here's the thing about the setting in The Spectacular Now: the fact that it takes place in modern-day Oklahoma is not that big of a deal. Sure, Sutter mentions various places where he parties there, but for the most part, this story could just as easily have happened in some other city.
What really matters is the novel's time. For someone who wants to live in the "spectacular now," Sutter sure spends a lot of time reliving the past. Whether he's telling a story at a party or reminiscing about his dad, most of his interactions with other people, and most of the time he spends alone, is dedicated to the past. He doesn't even like modern music – he wants to listen to the stuff his dad liked.
Of course, some settings really are important. Certain neighborhoods (like Aimee's, for instance), mean more to him because they remind him of his early childhood, when his dad was still with them. Houses are important to Sutter, too. That's why he gets so upset when he remembers their family first moving in with Geech. It was a betrayal of their father's memory to leave the house where he used to live.
And to keep that connection to his dad going, even after the disappointment of seeing him again, where does Sutter end up? In a run-down bar, just like the one his dad brought him to in Fort Worth, reminiscing about the past with a bunch of other drunks.
The Spectacular Now is like a cross between the internal monologue you've got running in your head and an SAT vocab test. (Unless you're an SAT whiz, in which case it should sound pretty familiar. Aside from the alcoholism, we hope.) Most of the time, it's totally conversational and understandable most of the time—until it turns around and packs a wallop. Sutter himself says that he studies new vocab words to be able to keep up with his best bud, Ricky.
Now that's peer pressure we'd like to see more of.
Have you ever talked to someone who was a little drunk? We hope not—so just take our word for it: Sutter's style of narration is exactly like having a chat with someone who's tipsy. He tells the story with all kinds of crazy embellishments and funny asides, and segues regularly into random, grandiose observations about life and love. The words he chooses fit the bill, too: slang and curse words all the way.
Let's take a look at one typical scene. Driving home after seeing his dad, Sutter's trashed and mad. (Uh, don't try this at home. Totally illegal, not to mention irresponsible and possibly leading to some manslaughter charges.)
From behind, a car horn blares. I guess the Mitsubishi must've meandered about six inches into the other lane, and some dude back there thinks he's traffic control. I'm like, "F- you, dude." There are a lot more hazardous types on the road than me – cell phone talkers, chicks putting on makeup, guys searching their floorboard for some crappy CD they dropped. (61.17)
Curse words? Check. Lack of responsibility for his behavior? Check. (We don't think the Mitsubishi was wandering, dude.) Rambling and wordy? Check. Close talking? Probably. If you close your eyes, you can probably even smell the whisky on his breath as he tells this story.
Family, friends, and girlfriends come and go, but whiskey? That's forever. And what better way to stay in touch with his BFF than by keeping it with him at all times, conveniently concealed, but easily accessible?
Sutter talks about his flask a lot—because it's always around. It's something he always remembers to take along, like other people carry a cell phone. And just like we might pull out our Smartphones to play Candy Crush when things start getting tense, he pulls out his phone. Check it out:
• "I offer him a hit off the flask." (12.2)
• "I […] carouse around up and down the sidewalks with what's left in my flask." (15.7)
• "Good thing I have the trusty flask." (36.21)
Okay. We're going to go out on a limb here and say that we're pretty sure our guy is an alcoholic. Calling your flask "trusty" the way you'd normally refer to a friend is a big flashing warning sign, Shmoopers. Because he doesn't have a support system of, say, other humans, he uses his flask instead. For Sutter, the flask is a comforting presence. For us, it's a sign—nay, a symbol—that he lacks sustainable human relationships.
We can see the flask in action when he starts dating Aimee. She tries to get closer to him by – what else? Drinking out of his flask. When he treats himself to a swig, "surprisingly, she asks if she can try a little" (32.40).
Sharing in something so near and dear to his heart – even if it is only whiskey – connects her to him in a new way. We're betting Aimee knows what she's doing here. You know the type: watching to see what's important to someone, and then latching on to that thing, too, so they'll have something in common—like when you wear the exact same galaxy print leggings that the super cool girl in your Chem class has. (No? Just us? Ahem.)
So, when Aimee watches Sutter, what does she see him doing all the time?
Bingo. Drinking out of his flask.
Once their relationship is in full swing, Sutter naturally presents Aimee with her very own flask:
"It's a flask," she says.
"Yes, it is. It's just like mine."
She sets the box down. "I love it."
"And you'll notice it's already full too." (50.35-38)
He wants her to have the same constant companionship and sense of security that his flask gives him. It's kind of sweet, right? In a misguided sort of way.
But notice her response. He assumes she'll be thrilled—and she is, just not quite for the same reason. When she says "I love it," what we're hearing is, "I love you."
It's not that Sutter doesn't think he has a problem. In fact, he even tries to quit at one point, emptying "the faithful flask into the gutter" (66.1). But notice how he describes this act—as a "less rational moment" (66.1). When he's "rational" again, he's heaving a sigh of relief that his "favorite liquor store is but minutes away" (66.1).
By the end of the book, Sutter has decided to embrace alcohol as his one and only relationship in life. He clings to that flask for all he's worth—and he should. It's literally his only friend. Basically, the flask becomes his future. Rather than spending his life with Aimee, or with any human being who loves him, he decides to stick with a cold hard metal container filled with alcohol instead.
After all, the flask won't ask him to change or take risks or be vulnerable. It'll just help him live in the now—spectacular or not.
It's hard to get close to a girl if she's wearing a giant, puffy, purple shell of nerdiness.
Coat. We mean giant, puffy, purple coat.
When Sutter first starts to hang out with Aimee, he really, really does not like her coat. Really. In fact, he says that it's a "huge, down-filled purple monster that makes her look like a giant billiard ball" (29.1). Plus, he thinks the coat will make it harder for him to pair her up with a guy there. (Of course, ironically, he ends up having to rescue her from a guy who's coming on too strong.)
When Sutter tries give Aimee a boost of confidence, though, her nerdiness slash coat interferes: "I reach up to give the back of her neck a little squeeze, but her giant puffy collar gets in the way" (29.9).
The coat is actually a physical barrier between them—which makes sense, since he did tell Ricky their relationship was not about sex. The purple coat prevents Sutter from seeing Aimee as she really is—and prevents him from realizing that he's starting to dig her, like, a lot.
No wonder that, as their relationship deepens, Aimee stops wearing the coat—it's "in the back of the closet now" (47.13-14). And you know who isn't hiding in any closet?
Aimee. Sutter has helped her break out of her shell, but that doesn't mean it's not still there, in her closet, for her to put on again if it gets too cold.
And that, of course, leaves us—and you, dear Shmoopers—with some questions. Would Sutter still like her, if she kept wearing it? Do you think she stopped wearing it for him – or because of him? After Sutter breaks up with her, do you think she'll get the coat back out?
If this were the 1980s, Sutter would be a Toys 'R Us kid: he just doesn't want to grow up. But surprise: he works in a place that sells grown-up clothes—suits and dress shirts—to young guys getting their first real jobs.
For Sutter, suits represent the way that the adult world completely ruins the innocence and freedom of youth. He even compares the situation to the way modern civilization has crept up on tribal peoples:
Once I saw this documentary about some primitive tribe in the South American rain forest, and they were, like, so cool. They didn't wear anything but these little flaps […] and they walked around in the forest, free and wild. […] Then civilization starts creeping in and the next thing you know, they're wearing these limp T-shirts and long-collared polyester shirts and looking like little winos. It was enough to break your heart. (9.3)
Just by changing their clothes, they've become different people—sadder people. They've lost their native culture, everything that made them who they were. There you go: that's what Sutter is afraid will happen to him when he finally grows up. He's scared won't be himself anymore.
And that's what Sutter hates doing to the young guys shopping for suits, too. He says that these "young dudes" were "teenagers, free and wild" just a second ago … and "now they come into Mr. Leon's wearing their salesman outfits and their bodies still haven't filled out enough to look right on them. They have zits […] from the stress of working their first real jobs and paying their own bills" (9.4).
Growing up actually seems wrong to Sutter, like it ruins a person's natural state. The stress of having to grow up actually causes actual physical damage in the form of zits—not to mention that it just looks physically ridiculous, trying to force a teenager's body into a man's role slash suit.
Most of all, though, Sutter dreads having to grow up himself: "I know that's the world that's waiting for me out there too," he says. "I already have to put on the slacks, the stiff shirts, and the ties just to work at Mr. Leon's. The real world is coming, chugging straight at me like a bulldozer into the rain forest" (9.5). So for Sutter, adulthood and maturity are destructive forces – something to fight against. Suits represent the stuffy, restrictive world of adulthood – and Sutter wants no part in that whatsoever.
But we have to ask—Sutter seems to see being a teenager as being a carefree, wild kid. But is his life really all that easy? Doesn't he have stresses, routines, and responsibilities that he's just choosing to ignore?
This story is totally told from Sutter's point of view. It's like the Sutterman himself is sitting next to you at a bar, giving you the scoop on what's been going on with him. That gives us awesome insight into his thoughts throughout the story, but—just like sitting next to a drunk at a bar—it has its downsides, as well.
See, Sutter's not exactly what you'd call a trustworthy narrator. Not only is he wrapped up in his own little world, but he's also drunk most of the time. So his observations are almost always skewed or warped in some way.
First of all, he's a bit self-centered, and is always making excuses for his own iffy behavior. After he burns up his brother-in-law's suit, he tries to make it sound okay: "It's only really the one suit that's altogether ruined," he says. "The others will probably smell a little funny, but a trip to the cleaner will fix that easy enough. He throws a complete fit all over me, though" (14.24).
Gee. Ruining a closet full of expensive suits—the suits that his brother-in-law has to wear to work every day? Yeah, NBD. Just imagine the very different reaction we'd get if we were seeing this from Holly's point of view instead.
Secondly, Sutter's a lush, a legitimate alcoholic. And it's really not funny. He even admits himself that his moods and thoughts are dependent on which stage of the buzz he's in. He can't always tell the difference between what's going on in his head and what's going on outside his head. Here's a typical example: he walks out of a room and then walks in, and says "Back in the banquet hall, the mood of the prom has changed. Or maybe it's just that I'm sinking into the next stage of the life of the buzz." (52.1)
In other words, you can't trust what Sutter says to be the truth. You have to look carefully at the other characters' reactions – and even if Sutter dismisses them, you shouldn't. That's the only way to get an objective view of the action. Whenever he starts pontificating on how great or how awful something is, you have to suspect that it might just be the whiskey talking.
Come to think of it, maybe whiskey is the narrator. It sure seems to be controlling Sutter's life.
In the exposition, we get to know Sutter, his girlfriend Cassidy, his buddy Ricky, his boss Bob, and his family. In that order. Which is, interestingly enough, also the order of their importance to Sutter.
Oh, we also find out that the kid has a bit of a drinking problem.
Sutter gradually fouls up his life more and more … until he wakes up from a drunken stupor, lying under a tree in a stranger's yard, and sees Aimee for the first time. You just know things are going to be different for him from here on out.
Against all odds, Sutter is doing well. He's wising up and taking things seriously for once – until he meets his dad. Talk about a turning point. His dad takes all that progress he's made and turn it on its head, making him lose hope that he'll ever be worthy of Aimee.
Sutter's new, hopeless view of his future causes him to abandon Aimee in the name of love. She doesn't know it yet, but he's winding things down in their relationship.
Alone at a bar, just like his dad, Sutter decides he doesn't need anyone. He's settled on following in his father's footsteps, and doesn't want to drag anyone else down with him. Yeah, it's not much of a resolution—which makes sense. How could a book focused on now have any real ending, anyway?