Generational conflicts, comfort, and comedy; Andrew Ridker’s The Altruists

Author Andrew Ridker will be bringing his first novel, The Altruists, to Prairie Lights this Wednesday night.

Austin Yerington, Arts Reporter

Before the age of 30, Andrew Ridker had written for such prestigious publications as The Paris Review, the New York Times, just to name two. With such a résumé, Ridker released his first published novel, The Altruists, this month, and he will bring his work to Prairie Lights today.

The novel follows Arthur, an aging professor, his estranged daughter Maggie, and son Ethan. After Arthur can no longer support his lifestyle financially, he invites his children back home, hoping to get some of the large inheritance his late wife left them. As the plot unfolds, the family is thrown into old resentments, bad memories, and fractured relationships.

Ridker is finishing his two-year stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshops. The novel deals greatly with the idea of clashes of generations between baby boomers and millennials.

“I never set out to write about generational conflict — in fact, Maggie was the first character that came to me,” Ridker said. “Then I started to create these other characters around her, this family, and all of a sudden, when I put her in a room with her father, [now] there’s generational stuff at play.”

The generational gap between Maggie and her father soon took shape in great stride. Ridker used his experience with older generations for inspirations for their interactions.

“When I got home to talk to my parents or my parents’ friends, I was like, ‘We’re not speaking the same language,’ ” Ridker said. “They’re talking like, ‘Yeah, you just get a job, and every two years, you get promoted until you’re the boss, then you buy a house, then you move to the suburbs,’ and that’s just not available to people the same way anymore.”

The observational difference has fascinated Ridker, and it was an aspect he wanted to really dive into. He didn’t want to dive just into generational differences but also speak about the class system in America.

“We live in a time with outrageous inequality,” he said. “Money dictates how you relate to people. I find that money is almost always the missing character in any work of fiction. Every writer has their taboos. Money is mine in this book. It’s the thing that nobody talks about but is secretly undergirding everything, just like sex and death.”

With a focus on class and having money in America, Ridker wanted to question parts that most writers might not.

“I’m interested in those slippery places like, ‘Can you have money and live a ethical life?’ If so, how?” he said. “If not, then what are you supposed to do with the money if you do have it? I’m interested in people’s fates where it bounces up and down like a graph. I’m interested when people play-act in different classes.”

The idea of class change and generational financial change is intrinsic to the novel.

“That’s a plot line in the book,” Ridker said. “You have this middle-age man who didn’t realize he was used to all this comfort his whole life, and now they are threatening to take it away, and he’s freaking out. People do not give up lifestyles easy.”

One aspect of the novel, and all of his writing, is his use of humor. When looking at the reviews for his novel, it is almost impossible to find one that leaves out the word “witty.”

“I don’t think I ever wanted to be a comedian per say,” he said. “But I grew up obsessed with comedy. I was what you would now say a comedy nerd.”

Comedy is an art and skill that Ridker has crafted over years by working in improv groups and sketch-comedy groups throughout high school and college. His favorite comedians include Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, and Lorrie Moore.

“Moore was a really important writer for me,” he said. “She is so funny and punny. That was the first time I saw that you can be really funny and still get published in The New Yorker. People take her seriously, and she is just so funny.”

Using comedy relieves tension or makes the plot flow better. For Ridker, it is something more deeper.

“It’s a way of getting the reader to relate to you and feel human with you,” he said. “For me, one of the ways to keep the reader on the hook is to keep you laughing, or chuckling, or amused, then I know you’ll follow me.”

Ridker will read from his book at Prairie Lights at 7 p.m. today.