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Dying Laughter

William Giraldi, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2011
For him there’s too much of everything. Too many words, too many dresses, too many pants, too much chocolate, too many cars—instead of being glad that there is finally enough of everything, he says: Too much, too many, an inflation of stuff that buries everything else, the essential things, the real things.

Added to this is the anxiety of watching communism collapse back home without being able to participate. After the Wall comes down, Adam returns to his apartment in the East only to find it has been ransacked; the album recording his sartorial achievements has been torn up by vandals. Aware that his bridges are burned, he returns to Evelyn, who has discovered she is pregnant, but is not sure whether by Adam or Michael. The story closes on a somber note with the two moving into a shared apartment and beginning a new life full of uncertainty. If the most entertaining part of the novel is over well before the end, the last pages have a seriousness that lifts the story out of the realm of easy comedy.

Immediately after crossing the border into Austria and the West, Adam remarks, “It’s like I’m at a carnival, except the Ferris wheel and shooting galleries are missing.” In William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, such entertainments are always conspicuously present, complete with funfair razzmatazz. “I met her on the Ferris wheel at the local bazaar,” the narrator Charles Homar tells us of his girlfriend, Gillian Lee. In the first of many improbable adventures Homar climbs sixty feet up the malfunctioning wheel to rescue this “tantric Mary Poppins,” entirely alone at the top:

Her odd beauty was the injurious kind, radioactive—it had physical effects on me, my anatomy in quake…. She was as if the word gustatory had grown legs and got a dress.

Very soon, the two are living together and planning to marry, their happiness marred only by “her ex-beau of four years, Marvin Gluck—Virginia State trooper, boots and all.” Marvin stalks the couple and threatens, “If you marry that baboon I’ll end all our lives.” Anxious, Charles decides to strike first, consulting his old friend Groot, a Navy SEAL, about how to commit the perfect murder. Groot appears throughout the book, always ready to equip his old friend with appropriate weaponry, in this case a combat knife, though on other occasions there will be semiautomatic rifles and explosives. In a flashback Charles remembers one of the first times Groot came to his rescue:

Back in high school, for instance, when a lacrosse-playing orangutan falsely accused me of attempting to look up his girlfriend’s denim skirt at a keg party, never mind that her legs were barely mammalian. He smacked the spittle from my mouth and I was too frightened to fight back. When Groot saw this across the yard from his vodka vantage point, he charged over and chopped the goon across the throat, at which point said goon gagged himself red and nearly fainted from air loss.

This comic-strip parody of action narrative, underscored by compulsive alliteration (vodka vantage, charged chopped, goon gagged), runs alongside a send-up of the liberal conscience; Homar is forever defending the dignity of women (“Women are not walking pussies…I’m a Democrat from New England”) and predictably condemning ugly urbanization:

The acres of green in my town had been bought by cloven-hoofed condo developers and strip malls; the piss-colored McDonald’s arches and the mom-and-pop-killing Walmart smoldered on the horizon like Chernobyl; the twenty-screen theater and the A&P so gargantuan you have to take a break in the produce aisle both replaced a baseball field where children like me went to dream and dream again.

In this monstrous world it’s hardly surprising that people behave in monstrous fashion. Charles drives down to Virginia to eliminate his rival, only to discover, on shining a “slim flashlight” into the man’s home, that

There was Marvin, lounged back in an armchair, looking at me with yawning eyes. The gray cat was arched on his shoulder, licking the bullet hole nestled in the side of his skull…. On the baby-blue curtains behind him, his blood was splattered better than a Jackson Pollock.

Marvin has killed himself for love just in time to save Charles from murdering for love.

Giraldi’s prose never ceases to draw attention to itself, seeking comedy by juxtaposing a high density of worn-out jargon from genre fiction with the most heterogeneous cultural references: “I’ve been ripping off everybody from the Sumerians to the Beats, with lengthy stops in ninth century BC Greece and sixteenth century Spain,” the narrator boasts. Charles, in fact, is a “memoirist of mediocre fame”—Homar is his arch pseudonym—who earns a living transforming his life into farce in a column for the New Nation Weekly. Chapter by chapter, what we are reading is not so much his experience as his weekly performances in search of fame and cash. Since everybody in the book is an avid reader of the New Nation Weekly, action in each new episode can be influenced by the characters’ response to already published episodes. So when Gillian leaves Charles in chapter two, it may be because she has read in the Weekly that he was planning to kill her ex. Abandoned, Charles is desperately unhappy, but still trapped in a stylistic straitjacket that obliges him to be funny:

Baffled, I dipped pita bread into my hubris and then declared that hummus was the fatal flaw that got Agamemnon stabbed in his bathtub. I thought about carving Gillian’s name across my pecs with a not-sharp steak knife, like Marvin Gluck. So this was what that maniac had been raving about.

Gillian had long been fascinated by stories of the giant squid, and having discovered that a certain Jacob Jacobi is planning an expedition to capture the first-ever live specimen, she has run off to join him. Armed by his friend Groot, Charles drives to Maine, fails to persuade Gillian to return to him, and consequently fires his automatic rifle into the hull of his rival’s boat, something that will allow him to set the next installment of his memoirs in prison where his cellmate is obsessed with the Loch Ness Monster.

That other monsters will join Giraldi’s list is an easy prediction. After a surprisingly brief stay in jail, Charles is off on an expedition to capture a Sasquatch—the huge, hairy humanoid of the Pacific Northwest—in Washington State. He has heard that Gillian and Jacobi have successfully recovered a giant squid, and hopes this analogous feat will impress. Later, he is invited to witness an alien spaceship landing near Seattle. Meanwhile, his fidelity to Gillian is challenged by a beautiful lawyer who pays off prison guards to get him alone in the visiting room and, in New Jersey, a “gargantuan superhero” who tries to force Charles to share group sex with “two Asiatic scholar slaves,” near-identical Chinese lesbians both called Mimi. While luring Charles with their lovemaking, the two discuss his memoirs, lexical choices, and the morality of writing about other people’s lives without their permission.

It gets tiresome. Not that Busy Monsters doesn’t have some good laughs, but the pressure to be funny in every line takes its toll and the constant discussion of the book’s style—“I’ve been told my sentences salsa,” Homar remarks at one point—soon grates. Toward the end, perhaps aware of the problem, Giraldi injects a little seriousness: returning to Connecticut, Homar receives a call from his mother, who tells him his father has died. Obliged to narrate ordinary scenes of mourning, Homar is at a loss:

And how should that conversation have gone exactly? Some souped-up suburban realism is what it was, with lines like “Are you doing okay, Mom?” and “Will you be all right with money?”

In the night, hearing moans from along the hallway, he sneaks out of his bedroom, imagining what? “My mother in sorceress garb trying to converse with the spirits; my mother on her mattress with a battery-operated pleasure utensil.” What he finds is “altogether different”:

My mother standing at the window, pondering the moon, embracing my father’s bathrobe, her mouth and nose pressed into the collar, she and the bathrobe swaying, ever so slightly, as if to the music of a slow dance.

This one moment of real intimacy, as the young man gets an insight into the romance behind his parents’ marriage, proves fatal to the rest of the novel: Homar resumes his “Gillian-inspired jaunt,” once more armed to the teeth by Groot and obliged now to spend the night in a haunted hotel; but at this point it is rather as if we were being invited by giggling children to watch Ace Ventura or Hot Shots! over and over and over; however indulgent you’re feeling, it seems plain silly.

Busy Monsters comes with a generous compliment from Harold Bloom on the jacket: the book, he remarks, “is rammed with life. A kind of elegiac intensity, remarkable for so young a man, pervades its harmonies.” Reading the novel’s 282 pages I repeatedly wondered what had induced Bloom to make that statement; it’s true that Giraldi’s prose is full of life, but then so are many other things that have nothing to do with good writing. As for the author’s age, rather than marveling that a man in his early thirties could write Busy Monsters, one is surprised that anyone over fifteen would want to. Such are the curiosities of Western culture that Schulze’s Adam and Evelyn, and many other fugitives from tyranny, will have to get used to.

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