Mon April 6, 2009
Awesome, A Novel, by Jack Pendarvis
I am a fan of Jack Pendarvis's work, and believe him to be our most promising rising southern humorist. Pendarvis had some marvelous stuff in his two collections of short pieces-The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure and Your Body Is Changing. Awesome is his first novel and, although there is a lot of comic stuff, there are problems.
By Don Noble
In his 1846 essay "The Philosophy of Composition" Edgar Allan Poe speaks of how he wrote "The Raven." Poe believed to create a single poetic effect required a certain intensity in the poem and a parallel intensity of effort on the part of the reader. This could be sustained, he believed, for about one hundred lines in a poem. After this amount of time and effort has elapsed, the poem ceases to be a poem. "Paradise Lost" is not a poem thousands of lines long. If read for longer than 100 lines, the experience becomes prose.
I think there is an analogy to be made with humorous writing. Here in America, our most successful humorous writing is done in one-liners, or jokes, or anecdotes or sketches or short stories. These range from the Catskill comedians, to Dave Barry, to Roy Blount, Jr., to David Sedaris. (The British seem to do longer a little better. The novels of Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis and, best of all, P.G. Wodehouse, are funny throughout, although they are highly episodic and best read in small pieces.)
I am a fan of Jack Pendarvis's work, and believe him to be our most promising rising southern humorist. Pendarvis had some marvelous stuff in his two collections of short pieces-The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure and Your Body Is Changing.
Awesome is his first novel and, although there is a lot of comic stuff, there are problems.
The title character is a giant named Awesome.
As best I can tell, Awesome is somewhere between forty and sixty feet tall. He can do a standing broad jump of 100 yards, he says.. He tells us he feels comfortable in a cathedral with a 100-foot ceiling. He is a genius as well, an inventor, an egomaniac and he wears a derby hat. This is a promising start, I know.
Awesome begins: "Here is a normal day for me. Wake up. Look at my handsome nakedness in my big mirror." Awesome has created for himself a robot ward, Jimmy, who is his manservant. "I could turn Jimmy into a wife robot if I wanted to. I could stretch him out to giant size and add some female-looking parts?." A lot of this novel is about "parts." It is in fact a kind of 196-page sex joke, which works sometimes and sometimes doesn't, which is sometimes inside the bounds of decorum and sometimes downright gross.
Awesome falls in love with his neighbor, Glorious Jones, and they are to be wed, but since Glorious is normal size, there will be, to say the least, complications. At the wedding ceremony Awesome reveals some strange needs and desires, Glorious rebels and flees, and in order to get her back, Awesome must perform a series of heroic deeds, similar to the labors of Hercules.
He must find a needle in a haystack, the lost chord, a four-leaf clover, and some DNA from the body of Hernando DeSoto. This sets him out on his epic quests. He travels and has adventures.
There are times when he is benign and gentle, like Swift's Gulliver among the Lilliputians, and careful not to cause damage and hurt people, and other times when he crushes the innocent underfoot and wrecks everything he touches.
The real literary grandfather of Awesome is however, as it was for Swift, Rabelais' Gargantua. And in Awesome, as in Gargantua, the humor is broad and sometimes coarse. Pendarvis's Awesome eats and drinks in huge quantities, belches and excretes in volume, travels widely, learns everything and lives life to the fullest, as he sees it. The adventures are filled with sexuality and scatology. Many readers will be delighted, others best stay clear.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."