An unnamed man travels to an unnamed country to take on an unspecified role at his employer’s home office. The foreign country is in the midst of political and social upheaval, spurred on by an apparently virulent but possibly harmless (except for the paranoia it engenders) plague. Through a series of misfortunes, misunderstandings, and mis-remembered crimes, the man finds himself exiled to a rat-filled sewer in a foreign country, slowly losing his identity.
This is a grim, uncomfortable book. Many of the reviews have compared it to Kafka, and that’s certainly fitting: there’s faceless bureaucracy as in “The Castle,” a sense of paranoia as in “The Trial,” the weirdness of a foreign land as in “Amerika,” dissolution of the self as in “The Metamorphosis”, and the dissolution of society as in “An Old Manuscript.” Unlike a typical Kafka protagonist, though, the man in this story is drenched in guilt and part of his dissolution is an embrace of the worst, most inhuman parts of himself.
Rats, monkeys, garbage, knives (sharp and blunt), blood, and foul smells pervade the novel’s imagery. It’s a fascinating descent into horror; hardly a pleasant read, but a powerful one.
Charlie Manx prowls the secret roads between our world and an evil Christmasland of the mind in his Rolls-Royce Wraith, searching for children to “rescue.” Vic McQueen, psychically damaged by both her own abilities to travel those secret roads (first on her childhood bicycle, then on a restored Triumph motorcycle) and by an earlier encounter with Manx, needs to catch Manx to rescue her son.
“NOS4A2” moves along at a brisk clip, built as it is around Vic as both pursuer and pursued. It’s a lot like a classic Stephen King novel, jam packed with pop culture references (as well as references , both overt and subtle, to other Joe Hill and Stephen King stories), and full of broadly drawn, over-the-top characters. While it certainly doesn’t break new ground in the horror epic genre–“Talisman,” for instance, was more original in its world-hopping, and some of the spooks in “20th Century Ghosts” are more unsettling than Charlie Manx (though the Gas Mask Man is certainly a high point in chilling characters …)–it’s solidly written and holds the reader’s interest. I especially like that the magic in the book comes at a steep cost for its practitioners–no one can hop between worlds without suffering cumulative damage. The denouement is a little too tidy, but I’m glad that it ends on a happy note after so much pain, especially in the last 150 pages or so.
It dawned on me rather late in the book – around page 140 or so, as the crazy train narrative was just about to leap its last rails – that there was a shaggy-dog retelling of a well-known tragedy at the heart of this book, full of groan-inducing puns. I think I was blinded to it by the word play and madcap picaresque; or maybe I was supposed to miss it, just as the eponymous narrator misses it right to the end, and all the pieces start to fall into place, and then fall out of place again, because it was all a three-card monte misdirection after all.
Set in a near-future hellscape version of Boston (“The Beast”) of hyperinflation, packs of street urchins, underground squatter cities, and gated New Jersey suburbs, “Fast Eddie” is a playful, crazy, inventive story in the tradition of “Huck Finn,” “Tom Jones,” and “The Good Soldier Svjek.” The hero-narrator gets into scrape after crazy scrape, each one more inescapable than the last, and somehow climbs this ladder of chaos to the top of the underground Dig City. It’s best read the way you watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with critical faculties turned off and disbelief fully suspended. Energetic and frenetic to the very end, and a tour-de-force of alliteration and silly puns, this is an entertaining and engaging ride of a book.