The Answer Is Always Yes

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Matthew Acciaccatura of Teaneck, New Jersey, begins his freshman year at NYU in the fall of 1995 with one goal in mind: to become cool. A former high school outcast, used to lumbering the hallways alone in oversize turtlenecks, Matt seems an unlikely candidate for such a transformation. Yet by dint of effort he lands the coveted position of promoter at one of the hottest clubs in New York in the heyday of rave music and Ecstasy. However, as “Magic” Matt rises to fame, portents of tragedy begin to appear, literally in the margins of the story. Footnotes from one Dr. Hans Mannheim, an imprisoned German academic obsessed with Matt’s dangerous trajectory, suggest that Matt is not as in control of his destiny as he might appear….

A gorgeously written archetypal tale of self-discovery (and self-deception) and a love letter to the enduring possibilities of New York City, The Answer Is Always Yes will keep readers guessing until its explosive climax.


"Here is a brainy, heartfelt, continuously inventive novel on a theme we know very well from life and hardly at all from fiction: the wish to be cool. It's impossible not to assent to The Answer is Always Yes."—Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision

"From the smoke and mirrors of the New York club scene emerges Magic Matt, the Jay Gatsby of his generation. This painfully unpopular young man's fierce determination to reinvent himself as the hippest kid at NYU is, by turns, darkly comic and profoundly tragic. The Answer Is Always Yes is a stellar coming-of-age novel with a nifty, sinister postmodern twist. And it's a terrific read; an eloquent page-turner. How's that for some kind of wonderful?"—Binnie Kirshenbaum, author of An Almost Perfect Moment, and A Disturbance In One Place

"Fierce and wildly original—Monica Ferrell is a thrilling new voice."—Nick Flynn, author of Bullshit Night in Suck City

"Packed with poetry and humor, this dazzlingly written first novel unearths the sorrow behind that strange American sickness, the pursuit of cool. Like the city they eulogize, Ferrell's sentences teem with beauty and ambition—you want to linger at every turn."—Eric Puchner, author of Music Through the Floor

“A pyrotechnic debut…. The protagonist and prose recall the Richard Fariña/Tom Robbins school of writing.”—Kirkus Reviews

"Exquisite...[Ferrell's] exuberant narration evokes her likable protagonist's world."—New Yorker

"Irresistibly readable, Ferrell's first novel is a triumph not only of setting but also of voice, tone, and attitude...Gorgeously written, beautifully imagined, and wonderfully spot-on."—Booklist, starred review

"Ferrell is a good writer who understands hipster anxiety and the aspirations that New York manufactures with every generation."—Time Out

“A stylized and exuberantly written debut novel.” —Publishers Weekly


Chapter One

The bedeviling notion that his new roommates would be in any position to mock him was instantly dispelled when Matt pushed open the door of Room 403. There at the end of a dim corridor, two figures stood silhouetted against a bright white wall: one large and broad-chested, his crossed arms fanning open now for a grand fool’s wave, the other lumpish, painfully hunched, even from this distance visibly a noncontender. Matt moved closer, tennis sneakers smacking on the waxed wooden floor, eyes adjusting from the fluorescence of the dorm’s outer hall. The big guy was actually wearing—dear God!—that purple freebie WELCOME NYU CLASS OF 1999 T-shirt they were giving away downstairs, a pair of khakis, puffy running sneakers, and a sublimely cheerful hick’s grin. The smaller one, idol-still, was dressed in a brown button-down that hung over graying black jeans, his feet encased in orthopedicky black shoes, his pale head protruding like a mushroom. From the vector of his glasses, he seemed to be staring at the back of the first guy’s head, an embarrassing, dreamy smile on his soft lips.

For a moment—ah, blessed moment, like hanging upside down on a swing while the whole blue-sky world spins, dizzyingly far below—Matt’s stomach somersaulted, and everything warm and kind in him went gushing toward these two strangers. To think that as late as an hour ago, skimming above the steel-blue Hudson on the George Washington Bridge, he’d still been earnestly praying for a reprieve from this Dwight Smeethman of Somewhere, Minnesota, and Joshua Cohn of Brooklyn, that some miracle could blind them from whatever chink there might be in his untried social armor. Please! These two? How innocent, helpless, like puppies trying to lick your hand from the gurney, where in minutes someone would come put them to sleep—or at least so the big hick seemed, waving manically, irrepressibly happy. Well. Clearly, fate was throwing the first pitch here underhand, a giant, innocuous softball. Shifting the cardboard box pressed to his chest and surreptitiously wiping a hand free of clamminess for his practiced high-five, Matt stepped up.

Then, without warning, a series of small accidents happened.

Really, Matt had timed it expertly—just at the right moment raising his hand to meet that of the sandy-haired guy lunging forward—yet what he came crashing down on was the kid’s forearm. A short struggle ensued as Matt’s hand darted about, wildly seeking to strike palm. “Whoa,” said the guy, rueful. “It’s okay, buddy—just trying to shake your hand.” The guy looked over to the right: no! Here were four other guys, two standing, two sitting in wooden chairs pulled from desks, shades of sly amusement on their faces.

Now Matt dropped the box. Now he gasped. Now the box was cracking, bits of his notes’ yellow legal paper showing through the tape. “Oh my God,” he said, “I’m so sorry.” Instantly, he knew: saying this was precisely as stupid as that time in fourth-grade science when he had clapped his hands ecstatically on seeing the green of a seedling peeking from his Dixie cup and gasped, Oh my goodness, so that Mrs. Markham the teacher, ashamed for him, had actually had to look away from those rows of kids clapping, mock-gasping, Oh my goodness! all over the room.

“It’s okay, buddy!” The guy had slapped a broad, reassuring hand to Matt’s back. “It’s your room—you can put that anywhere!” He laughed convivially at Matt, at the four kids gathered together, at the powder-pale kid standing still by the back wall. “So, welcome, Matthew! It’s excellent to meet you finally, face to face!”

“Thanks. You too, I mean. Totally excellent. Oh, um, but, actually, it’s Matt.”

“Right on!” The guy gave Matt a diplomatic grin. Okay, if you say so. “Well, I’m Dwight. So, guys, this is my roomie Matt; Matt, I want you to meet some guys from down the hall, Ken, Dan, Ben, and—ah!” Dwight broke off, skipping the fourth. “What am I thinking! Before we go any further,” with a steady pressure on his shoulder, Dwight wheeled Matt around, “our other roommate, Josh!” Dwight flourished with his free hand—voilà!

How-style, the pale kid by the back wall lifted an arm furred with tiny black hairs, then awkwardly thrust it down. “ ’Lo.” He flushed, glancing quickly at Dwight.

Somehow—was it Josh’s reverential look? the way Dwight casually looped an arm about Matt’s neck and dragged him this way and that over the room, to the open door of a single bedroom and then by a double, waving over windows and desks and speaking so confidently, so fait accompli of the necessity of drawing lots? who can say from what sev- eral flowers the honey of an intimation is made, but at any rate—Matt understood.

They thought yours truly their inferior! I mean, how funny! Mr. Freebie T-shirt on the one hand, and here—Dork City, this overgrown pastry of a Josh! Quite, quite droll. The hand thing was a dreadful mix-up, of course, and the box, but—please! I mean, merely let them scan his clothing, exactly in accordance with the styles he’d espied and copied down from life. These were real vintage gray fine-wale cords from the secondhand section at Urban Outfitters. This was a hipster T from Screaming Mimi’s. These were Adidas. Or maybe they didn’t know enough about sneakers to comprehend?

“What do you think, Matt?” Dwight was beaming at him.

“Hmm? Sorry, what was that?”

“It’s all right.” Dwight granted on him a tired, knowing smile. “Buddy. You must be exhausted from your long drive.”

“No, no—oh.” Matt caught himself before bringing up New Jersey. “I’m fine.” He nodded vociferously at the four visitors. “Go ahead. What were you asking me?”

“What you thought of the pad,” Dwight replied.

Pad. This meant an apartment, doubtless here their suite. Okay. Now what he needed was something killer to shoot back. Just a little something. To say, hey, who’s cool? Me, not you. “The pad? I mean, it’s . . .” He smirked for time. “Well . . .”

“It’s pretty great, wouldn’t you say?” Dwight cued him like a kindly teacher.

Matt looked over at the four guys, nearly permitting himself an eyebrow raise. But didn’t anyone notice how high-handed Dwight was being? Great. He could do vastly better than that anyway. There must be something for this exigency in his slang glossary. Let’s see now. “As for me,” he patted back a faux yawn, peeking through slitted eyes, “I’d say it’s the bomb.”

But the guys did not seem impressed. Hard to tell for sure, since Matt’s view was obscured, but the Asian kid—Ken?—clearly laugh-coughed, and Ben, a short, stubby guy, seemed to exchange a look with Dwight; he may have snorted, unless that was just his chair’s scraping on the floor. What? The bomb was a perfectly good term. Hadn’t it just appeared in an interview with some rap star? Maybe it was a little too advanced for them, streetwise, slick; these four were excessively white-bread for such urban lingo. Dwight, meanwhile, had a wide euphoric smile veneered over his face, as if Matt were perhaps a dolphin that had just docilely flipped for him in the air. Neat trick!

“I like it.” Josh glanced protectively at Dwight. “I think our suite’s pretty great.”

Dwight began rubbing Josh’s shoulder like a masseur. “Oh, so does Matt. That’s all he meant. Isn’t it?” Dwight winked at Matt. Suddenly, he let his hand go still on Josh’s shoulder, then flashed him, Matt, and all four of the guests a grin. It was a beautiful grin: a masterful grin. A grin that said, Let’s you and me slip off the shackles of the world, my friend, and ride away on motorcycles into the distant California night. Yet it was also somehow a grin that said, We’re making real progress on drinking-water wells in sub-Saharan Africa—we’re going to beat this whole world-poverty-injustice thing! In all the times Matt had rehearsed the thousand- kilowatt smile called Confident back home in Teaneck, he had never quite mustered up that luster or, for that matter, lost his resemblance to a slightly daft vampire. “Dudes!” Dwight announced, overwhelmed by surprise and epiphany. “This is going to be one fantastic year!”

At Dwight’s invitation, the visitors began chattering about their trips: Dan, a wiry type in a navy Izod and clean blue jeans, had ridden in from LA on the same plane as Cameron Diaz; Ben, the short guy, had packed while completely hungover from a humungous going-away party he and three of his friends had thrown, which led into a discussion of graduation parties. Matt recalled the way he had celebrated his own graduation: a noontide trip to Charlie Brown’s, during which his mother sniffed at his sticking to the smorgasbord salad bar (as ever unable to appreciate the need for that dietary regimen practiced since the reception of his acceptance letter), followed by, at home, in the backyard, a well-tended bonfire of high school things—AP Chem notes, SAT prep books, and, most deliciously of all, materials from the college counseling office, such as the form where Mr. Blaine had penned a list of distant second-tier schools. Did they really think they could ship him off to “special” places like Reed College? We think you will do best in a smaller environment, where uniqueness is treasured and your distinctive gifts will not get lost . . . Those appalling naysayers.

They were getting up, the visitors. They were stretching, preparing to leave. Missed your chance! “Ah, g’bye,” Matt croaked out, hastily shooting up from the desk as they started to walk past. “Catch you later.” He gave the first one, Ben, a sprightly wink.

Oh. No.

Ben did not smile. Instead, his face twisted up like some sort of badly manufactured Cabbage Patch Kid. His head jolted back in disgust or astonishment, his ugly squat mouth dropping open. “Catch you later,” the guy repeated, gruff, not without perhaps a taint of irony. He was a few paces past when his voice returned, borne up from the echoey corridor. “Did you see that?”


“He winked at me.”


“I’m telling you, the kid—”

The door slammed shut, blotting them out.

Matt squeezed his eyes closed. He had chosen precisely the wrong one. It was Short-Boy-Something-to-Prove: Matt knew that type. Like Jake Garbaccio, who, in order to make everyone on the school bus forget how easily his name lent itself to Jake Garbage-io, spent the whole of to-and-fro-school transports in sixth and seventh grade inventing new tortures for you.

Dwight coughed. “So! Guys.”

Matt flashed open his eyes to see Dwight posing cross-armed.

“I’m going to join those kids for lunch in a minute, which by the way you guys are totally, totally welcome to. I want that to be completely clear: you guys are my homies. Okay? It’s all good. Right, buddy?” Dwight extended a hand low: Josh gazed and then fondly batted at it. “Right on. But should we just go ahead and get this whole picking-lots thing out of the way?” Dwight found a slip of paper and began writing out lots, with Josh looking eagerly over a shoulder. “Bro, ready for your date with destiny?” He stretched out a palm to Matt.

Please send me a sign. Just so I can survive. Please.

—But it was D for Double when he unfolded the slip.

“Oh, bummer,” said a mournful Dwight. He shook his head when Josh unfolded a D as well. “Sorry, man.” Dwight put his hands on his hips and sighed. “All right. So that’s settled. Anyone up for lunch?”

“I’ve got to go unpack my car,” Matt muttered. “See you.”

He swept out the hall door, pushing blindly through kids and parents and bags until he found the bathroom, the stall door slamming behind him and, with a wicked twist, safely barred. But what’s wrong with you? Getting all rapt in reminiscence like that. You need to open your mouth at the critical juncture. You need to go through the motions! Keep your eyes on the prize here—do you expect another shot at a vita nuova is likely to come knocking at your door? “I told you,” he whispered aloud, hands on his naked knees. “You have to. I told you. Come on.”

What kind of a creature was this Dwight? Matt was shaking his head, a grim, tight-lipped smile on his lips. Thoroughly annoying, that’s what, full of himself, fulsome. But really: focus. Not a veritable jock, though Dwight’s appearance and movements did tend in that direction; too sharp, on his toes for that. Nice, even nicey-nice, cheesily touchy-feely and inclusive. And yet—liked, apparently. How had he managed to pick up those four guys, get invited to lunch, direct their conversation like a leader? Like their president, for Chrissakes, striding about broad-chested, generously looking everyone in the eye, a student-government type. Hand-shaking! And winking—he gets to wink! Yet liked nonetheless, Dwight. Josh seemed practically in love. A strange new species indeed. Are you jealous, sir? No, of course not, sir, don’t be absurd.

Reader's Guide

1. Discuss the novel’s title. How does “yes” function for the characters? What does it mean to say “yes” to anything? How did Matt respond to “no” when he was growing up in Teaneck?

2. How would you describe the friendship between Matt and Jason? How does the dynamic change when Sophie is added to the mix?

3. In chapter nine, Vic Spector tries to get Matt to admit why he’s really at the club. What do you think Matt wants from the club scene? What do Matt and Vic expect from each other? Do promoters exploit club kids, or are the promoters the ones who are actually getting exploited?

4. What is the effect of the “research” projects that frame the novel, including not only Dr. Mannheim’s reports but also the notes from researcher M.F., introducing and closing The Answer Is Always Yes? How did your attitude toward Dr. Mannheim shift while you read his commentary? Did you trust him?

5. How do the characters experience one another on Ecstasy? Without it, how do they feel about themselves and their lives?

6. Who has the upper hand in Matt and Sophie’s relationship–in love, in bed, and otherwise? What is the nature of their attraction for each other?

7. How does the author balance the tragicomic aspects of Matt’s story? Which parts of The Answer Is Always Yes entertained you the most? Which scenes were the most startling?

8. What was your reaction to Matt’s mother? How did she influence Matt’s decisions as he reinvented himself in Manhattan?

9. How does NYU, along with its surrounding neighborhoods, form an appropriate backdrop for the novel?

10. What would Lisanne think of Dr. Mannheim’s depictions of her? How does the story of their marriage compare to the scenes of other lovers in the book? Does Dr. Mannheim see the world accurately?

11. Did you read the novel as a satire? If so, who is being satirized? Do any of the allusions remind you of people you know?

12. In his “Chronological Gloss,” between the fourth and fifth chapters of part two, and again in another “Chronological Gloss” between the third and fourth chapters of part three, Dr. Mannheim provides historical data for the years 1995 and 1996. What makes these years ideal for the story of Matthew Acciaccatura? What details does Monica Ferrell include to capture that particular moment in New York lore? Is the cultural climate of New York (and America) so very different in the twenty-first century?

13. Is Katie Ford’s father solely responsible for the violence in the closing chapter? Was Dr. Mannheim’s incarceration, followed by probation, an appropriate punishment?

14. How did you react to the final image from Dr. Mannheim, in which Sophie dances to the suave words of Irving Berlin? How will she remember this chapter of her life?

15. What did “cool” mean to Matt? What does it mean to most people? What was the source of Matt’s magical rise to fame at Cinema?

16. Did you reinvent yourself in college? In the transition years of late teens and early twenties, what is revealed: your true self, or a false, derivative self that eventually gets abandoned?

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