This is the first time my enjoyment of a book was negatively impacted by forcing myself to hammer through some pretty nasty writer's block in an attem...moreThis is the first time my enjoyment of a book was negatively impacted by forcing myself to hammer through some pretty nasty writer's block in an attempt to make a review happen. Fortunately, my love for Camus did not suffer.(less)
While waiting for my white whale of novel--Joseph McElroy's Women and Men--to emerge from the murky depths of the internet with something akin to a realistic price tag in tow, I've settled for introducing myself to the writer's more readily available works the way one "settles" for Guinness when the bartender has never even heard of Three Philosophers. I finished McElroy's debut novel, A Smuggler's Bible, nearly a month before picking up Cannonball, his ninth and most recent offering: Reading two bookending extremes of a writing career in quick succession produced the effect of watching a new acquaintance transform into an old friend as endearing quirks became welcome habits, as a whisper of what will come crescendoes to a thundering boom of masterful storytelling.
Discernible plots emerge like a developing photograph's slow cohesion: a young man forges a symbiotic friendship with a younger immigrant of incredible talent before enlisting in the Iraq war, only for their paths to cross one more fateful time in that Fertile Crescent; recently discovered scrolls that may or may not be genuine accounts of Jesus from a contemporary's vantage point are revealed to posses great religious or political significance; familial ties are questioned, strengthened and redefined, especially in terms of when a friend becomes a brother, a father becomes a foil and a sister becomes an object of desire.
Cannonball is not written in the most invitingly accessible of styles--the plot is rendered in a first-person narration that initially feels like a shuffling slideshow of non-sequential images and impressions--but it is by no means impenetrable. This is a book that divulges its secrets in ravenous gulps rather than ladylike sips: Patience and greedily lapping up the book in 50-page guzzles are rewarded with a better sense of its pace and disjointed recollection.
McElroy is a writer whose plots and characters exist to move a thesis toward its inevitable elucidation. His books are not simply vehicles transporting his characters in linear, predictable joyrides through personal growth as they hurdle toward the happily-ever-after finish line. That's not to say that this novel is populated by uninspired archetypes who mechanically convey the writer's agenda, because that would be a lie; in fact, McElroy's minimalist approach to exposition proves that a deft hand can show so much by telling so little, as I left this book with a complete image of everyone who lived and died within its pages.
Several of the characters who play significant roles in Zach's life possess the kinds of talents that tend to forgive--nay, willfully gloss over--the perfectly natural failures of character that aren't exactly negated by finely honed skills. It is that mental difficulty in reconciling extremes and other seemingly at-odds elements that is the force propelling Cannonball: This is a book about dualities, how easily they come into existence and how unavoidable they are when no two people can ever see any one thing identically. Once the novel begins to grab hold of and run with this theme, every action becomes more significant, every word is made richer with layered precision, every character develops into something more believably human. We know that Zach is not a perfectly reliable narrator, that he possesses great abilities as well as a great capacity for lapses in judgment, but he is also a magnetically empathetic soul who puts the world together in such a familiar, non-academic way--as if he, too, were groping in the dark without the hand of an omniscient writer guiding him as both the bigger picture and his part in it come into focus--that such flaws make him companionable to a degree that sheer, awesome talent alone cannot.
This is a novel told in symbolic metaphor stemming from Zach himself: He is a gifted swimmer and diver, but it is photography that drives him, and, as the novel barrels ahead, it becomes more and more evident that the commonalities between these two pursuits hold the key to the heart of the story. Which is this: Universal understanding is a myth. No two things look the same to two people, much like a photo and its negative, like a concrete entity and its pallid, rippling reflection on water. Zach, who never had the crucial thing separates a competitive diver from an Olympian, who sees photography more as a mode of artistic expression than factual representation, stands at square opposition to his father, who seeks a champion in the water and a documentarian behind the lens, neither of which Zach is destined to be.
For all its frenetic pacing, Cannonball never feels rushed; there is no hurry to get to the next stop but there are a controlled urgency for understanding and a need for some sense of correlation between seemingly unrelated events that drive the narration. A scene of great chaos and destruction occurs about halfway through the novel that arrives so quickly and is such a turning point for the story that it takes Zach and the reader alike a few seconds to realize what's happening, as is often the case with those moments that change everything. It offers a slow dawning of realization that echoes how such moments of upheaval are processed and later recalled in the real world.
True to the dualities it encompasses, Cannonball is at once hotly emotional and coolly rational, capable of blending everyday humor with routine human tragedy, celebrating true talent and the virtues of incredible heart. Its curiosity is honest without being mawkishly earnest, its questions are sincere without erring toward saccharine sentiment. McElroy challenges his audience with unconventional narration and the occasional up-close look at some uncomfortable realities but he more than generously rewards his readers with a thought-provoking examination of how one things can have so many varied appearances from different angles, with a clearer understanding and through the increasing distance created by the onward march of time.(less)
(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Many, many thanks to Lori for providing me both the PDF version of this book an...more(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Many, many thanks to Lori for providing me both the PDF version of this book and the opportunity to be among her guest reviewers.)
Hunker down, friends and goobers, and let us explore this tale of hero-worship, espionage, and warring fast-food franchises built on the sturdy foundation that is good ol' American greed and gluttony.
If you only know of Patrick Wensink's Broken Piano for President for its legal kerfuffle with Jack Daniel's (which the internet universally reports as involving the nicest cease-and-desist letter ever -- and you know how hard it is for anyone on the internet to agree on anything), then you are doing yourself a great disservice and ought to remedy such an unfortunate truth by getting lost in this light-bizarro joy ride. If nothing else, you may find that your problems pale in comparison to those faced by some of these characters.
Like any satisfying slab of bizarro-flavored fare, Broken Piano for President features an antihero who would be an unlikable loser if he weren't such a sympathetic everyman whose dilemmas -- the guilt of unexorcized childhood demons, an unsuccessful love life, a job that he thoroughly despises -- are relatable to anyone old enough to know that a blackout-drunk dependency on alcohol is the only way to deal with such staggering hopelessness. That is, until you wake up in a strange but totally awesome car one morning with no recollection of how you got there, whose car you've purloined, or who the corpselike lady in the passenger seat with the gaping head wound is and whether or not you're responsible for such a gory morning greeting.
Such is the life of and our introduction to Deshler Dean (presumably named for the author's town of origin). And things don't necessarily get any better for our self-brutalized protagonist, nor does he acquire any immediate clarity regarding either this or any of his multitudinous memory lapses brought on by drunken stupors. What he does gain, however, is an avalanche of opportunity for flexing his liar muscles by way of his alcoholic's amnesia and his improvised double- (and triple-) agent status for two fast-food giants (Winters Olde-Tyme Hamburgers and the subtly named Bust-a-Gut Hamburgers) who are locked in a game of perpetual one-upmanship with absolutely no conscience about offing the competition's (or their own) employees and clogging their consumers' arteries in pursuit of the almighty dollar. While Deshler stumbles through his jobs as an inebriated wunderkind of sorts who dreams up shamefully, sadistically delicious foodstuffs for his employers' menus that he never remembers once the hammer of sobriety thwacks him between the eyes, it is that same dollar-beer haze that allows him to write word-salad songs and serve as a frontman for his true love: his Butthole Surfers-inspired, art-house nightmare of a band, Lothario Speedwagon.
It is satire that deserves its comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and Christopher Moore, for sure. The dirty underbelly of the two fictitious hamburger heavy-hitters grows worryingly less and less outlandish as the violence escalates and the calorie counts of Deshler's brainchildren reach meteoric heights. It takes no mental gymnastics to imagine real-life corporations planting spies in the corporate offices of their biggest competitors to ensure that they come out on top for just one fiscal quarter, as it's also no surprise that one of the chain's founders has been iconified and deified at the hands of the American public. The dangers of greed, blind consumerism, scare-tactic TV news, and sacrificing job satisfaction for job security are all on parade as the story catapults to its frenzied climax.
While bizarro is definitely not for everyone, this is hovering more on the Regular Guy Thrown into Extraordinary Circumstances with Some Violence on the Side spectrum of the genre rather than its Batshit! Insanity! at Every! Corner! counterpoint, which might make it a little more palatable for someone looking to introduce themselves to what can be a scary little literary niche that often requires a more willing suspension of disbelief that some readers may be comfortable extending. Broken Piano does, however, weigh in at a veritable novel-sized length, making it the first non-novella bizarro I've had the pleasure of reading. And it does, for the most part, successfully carry a plot (aided by dozens of subplots, lists, asides, montages and lessons in fictional histories) for its substantial duration. There are a few lags where characters wax a little too self-indulgent, where the story seems to meander, where the violence seems a little gratuitous in its detail but, hey, sometimes life errs on that side, too. Besides, I've seen examples of the genre commit far more literarily heinous crimes.
Bizarro is at its most successful when there's something significant to be found for those who are willing to dig below the violent, exaggerated-for-shock-factor surface that gives it its charm. Broken Piano is fueled by enough cautionary tales (never sacrifice corporate comfort for the art one was meant to create, even if it means being a valet for a little longer), life lessons (how the best-laid plans can be blown asunder by life's pesky unpredictabilities, like falling in love) and allegories (there are far more options than the two public favorites -- which I couldn't help but compare to the stranglehold of America's two-party system, even though there was nary a cue pointing me in that direction within these pages) to lend thematic support to its off-the-wall goings-on. It is an entertaining romp through some sick shit for those who just want to be told a story and a modern-day morality play of sorts for those who aren't satisfied with simply taking a novel at face value. (less)