August 09, 2007


Crooked Little Vein. By Warren Ellis. William Morrow. $21.95.

      You won’t find a better beach read this summer than Warren Ellis’ strange and wonderful novel about the underbelly (or underbellies) of America, Crooked Little Vein. Just be sure to pack it for a short beach day – it’s a very quick read.

      It’s a detective novel of sorts, a political novel of sorts, and a novel that channels bits of Terry Southern, pieces of Kurt Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater), and a touch or two of Elmore Leonard, all filtered through the sensibilities of William Burroughs, but with much more coherent style.

      The plot has to do with an alternative U.S. Constitution, one with invisible amendments and the ability, thanks to some alien tinkering, to mold the minds of people who hear it read aloud in person. This alt-Constitution can be used to return our modern, debased America to the forthright values and morals of the Founders’ own time.

Compared to the rest of the stuff in Crooked Little Vein, the plot is only a little peculiar. It’s really a construct on which to hang Ellis’ version of a search for America, undertaken by the traditional burned-out, hard-luck private eye (named, in this case, Michael McGillis) and his trusty (but not too trusty) assistant, Trix, who is accurately encapsulated by another character as “a crazed omnisexual vaginalist with a string of lovers from genders they don’t even have names for yet.”

      The unlikely travels of this unlikely pair are the core of what the book is all about. It is a sociosexual journey as well as a quest for what America has become in the many years since Easy Rider and the few since 9/11. Airports and airplane riders play an important part in this: “Lots of people in prettily decorated bid-flu masks moved in twitchy flocks around the airport, darting away in migration patterns from anything that coughed.” Aboard planes, Mike meets such characters as a 71-year-old serial killer who objects to the many mass-market treatments of his never-solved slayings, and a ridiculously phony detective (whose meanderings give the book its title) whom Mike frames as a shoe bomber to get him to shut up, and who turns out to have been on to something after all.

      What Mike and Trix are on to takes them to, among other places, a Texas barbecue restaurant: “On [the serving trolley] was a horizontal section of a bull. As if someone had taken a steer, chainsawed the sides off, and chucked the middle part on an eight-foot-long steel platter on wheels. It still had a horn sticking out of it. It was served blue; cold, basically, just seared to seal it and slapped on the plate. If it had still had both sides, a good vet could’ve gotten it up on its feet in an hour or so.” And they encounter one of the quintessential Rich Old Men: “Just one of the guys here. Blue jeans and a work shirt, salt of the earth, working man like yourself. Like they’re somehow uncomfortable about being rich enough to sleep in a bed made of vaginas being pulled around the town at night by a fleet of gold-covered midgets.”

      Mike, the modern Everyman – he is several times compared to Dante, with various other characters claiming to be Virgil – keeps the reader on an even keel during his journey through this modern Inferno because he is so ordinary, although he does have a way of expressing himself: “It felt like I was trapped in a room opposite a mad weasel with paintstripper daubed on its nipples. One false motion and it’d stop ripping itself to shreds right in front of you and go straight to chewing your head into a stump.” While Trix has made her peace with modern depravity, and even revels in it (well, some of it), Mike has simply gone to seed, as one character remarks when seeing him naked: “Last time I saw a body like yours it was dangling from a tree on CSI. Do you live on grease sucked straight out of burger-joint drains or something? I bet the only exercise you get is flushing the toilet.”

      So what does Ellis make of all this total brain-frying weirdness? Crooked Little Vein turns out to be – a love story. Okay, it’s a love story the way David Lynch’s movie Wild at Heart is a romantic comedy. But there you have it. Take it along to the beach for some sun, surf, and a bracing dose of genuinely strange amusement.

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