January 12, 2012

(++++) LIFE ON WRY

Lunatics. By Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel. Putnam. $25.95.

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. By Alex Gilvarry. Viking. $26.95.

     It is tempting to call Lunatics “the buddy novel to end all buddy novels,” but of course it won’t really end them – it will just make them ashamed of themselves. To the extent that the genre is capable of feeling shame. Which isn’t a great extent. Still, few writers are as shamelessly exploitative of everything from the latest news headlines to the oldest flatulence jokes as Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel, and as long as sophomoric humor packed in a Keystone-cops-style wrapper is your cup of tea (or an excretion that rhymes with tea), you will have a great time with this bit of international-chase lunacy (which, not the slightest bit surprisingly, has already been sold as a movie). Utterly mindless entertainment that tosses in plenty of gratuitous celebrity references (presumably from Zweibel, an accomplished TV writer) and plenty of equally gratuitous political ones (presumably from Barry, an accomplished newspaper writer, which is a bit like being an accomplished buggy-whip manufacturer in the automobile age), Lunatics lets each author assume his very own alter ego. One wonders how much they are altered from the authors’ true egos, but when you read the book, you will see why it is probably better not to go there. Wherever “there” is. For the buddies – Philip Horkman (“hork”: oh, ha ha) and Jeffrey Peckerman (“pecker”: oh, ha ha ha) – “there” is in fact pretty much everywhere. The two “meet cute” (except that it isn’t cute) when Horkman, the Zweibel character and referee of preteen soccer games, calls the daughter of Peckerman, the Barry character, offside. The two men are typical residents of alternative-reality-or-maybe-just-real New Jersey: Horkman owns a pet store called The Wine Shop (because it was financed by the Wines, his in-laws); Peckerman is a “forensic plumber,” which means he traces the causes of explosive toilet backups and solves poopy murder cases – and, not astonishingly at all, has his own Sunday morning cable show. The questionable soccer call leads to a series of increasingly ridiculous consequences, from an escaped lemur to a clothing-optional cruise on which Horkman starts to fall in love with a nun (who, duh, is not wearing her habit) to a new Cuban revolution (which the buddies co-lead) to – well, there is their capture by pirates in Mozambique, their rescue by the Mossad in Yemen, their protest leadership in Tiananmen Square, and their meeting with Donald Trump in California. Oh, and their nominations for president – Horkman by the Republicans, Peckerman by the Democrats. Think of Lunatics as a cure for sanity and you’ll have it just about right. Horkman tends to be on the prissy side (the Felix Unger role), while Peckerman is crude, sloppy, cynical and frequently incontinent (the Oscar Madison part, but much more foul-mouthed). There is nothing the slightest bit original in the overall plot structure, but there are plenty of outrageous (and sometimes outrageously funny) plot elements, and so many one-liners that people who find TV sitcoms hilarious will be entertained throughout. Typical Horkman line: “I looked at Peckerman and felt the distinct urge to smack him. But we had bigger fish to fry. Plus he was holding the gun.” Typical Peckerman line: “He was trying to look badass, but that’s a look a guy can’t pull off when he’s built like Olive Oyl and he’s naked except for a banana, which for the record – not that I made a point of looking; it’s just the way the angles lined up – was a good five inches longer than his dick.” So: rude, crude, lewd, far from subdued, and altogether unglued – that’s Lunatics. How could it not be a best-seller?

     From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant is closer to satire than farce, using its frequent intersections with the real world to make points rather than go for cheap laughs. So it won’t match the popularity of Lunatics. But this over-enthusiastically overwritten debut novel by Alex Gilvarry nevertheless has a lot going for it. Its underlying theme is quite serious: false or mistaken accusations, and how the American political system handles them in the years since the 9/11 terrorist murders – that is, how an innocent person can show he did not do something when the system is set up to prove his guilt. For most of the book, Gilvarry steadfastly refuses to descend into preaching or polemics, managing to pull in such elements as the modern immigrant experience and the things an unknown fashion designer must do to make it in New York City while keeping his novel balanced with enough humor and off-kilter observations to make it a pleasure rather than a chore to read. His central character is Boyet (“Boy”) Hernandez, a Filipino man determined to start his own fashion label. Gilvarry is a Staten Island native, but his mother is from the Philippines, so the choice of Boy’s background is understandable; and parts of the book take place in the Philippines, filling in Boy’s background. In New York, Boy is backed in his dream by his neighbor, eccentric Canadian (or maybe Pakistani) businessman (and maybe arms dealer) Ahmed Qureshi – a fact that eventually leads to Boy’s imprisonment in a six-by-eight-foot cell at Guantรกnamo, where he is given a Koran (even though he is not Moslem) and locked away as a terrorist. The media jump on the story, giving Boy the title of “Fashion Terrorist,” and the hapless young man is left to prepare for his combatant-status review on his own. As he gets his thoughts in order by writing them down, he discusses everything from the influences on his design style to his publicist (unfortunately named Ben Laden, in one of the book’s weaker attempts at humor). Boy tries hard to retain his faith in American justice and the American immigrant experience, sorely tried though both are. In writing his life story, which is what From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant is intended to be, Boy offers moments of lightness (such as some of his memories and certain exchanges with a guard named Cunningham) in a dark and frightening situation. The juxtaposition of comedy and fear is a difficult one to pull off, and the fact that Gilvarry does so successfully most of the time gives him considerable credit – although the much darker ending of the book is not a fully satisfactory conclusion stylistically. The novel is pulled into some unnecessary areas through some side issues, such as Boy’s determination to explain that he isn’t gay and Gilvarry’s decision to have him become a transvestite and fall in love, presumably for ambiguity’s sake, with a transgendered singer. But despite these flaws, which are concentrated in the book’s final pages, the main narrative, of an innocent and unconsciously witty young man pulled into a horrific situation through his own guilelessness, and trying to make the best of circumstances while retaining his faith in the country to which he has linked his life and fortune, is quite enough to sustain the novel. “I ask you,” writes Boy at one point, “is it fate that I am in here and you are out there?” A good question, and ultimately an unanswerable one. Gilvarry’s willingness to ask it is just one thing that sets the heartfelt intensity of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant apart from the silly surface-level antics of Lunatics. Yet both novels are quite distinctly American. What a country.

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