Just wait until demented Professor Bailey, who is experimenting with a teleportation device at CalTech in 1938, tries to explain why Los Angeles is the perfect place to transform Lavicini’s theatrical creation into a working machine. “Here, location was a meaningless and arbitrary property,” the doctor muses. “All spatial coordinates were equivalent. And that was how teleportation would function.”
How did we get from Weimar Berlin to unreal L.A.? Loeser goes there in pursuit of Adele Hitler, a rich party girl who had sex with almost everyone in their bohemian social circle but left town before she got around to him. She’s changed her last name to Hister (“I got bored with people asking me if I was related”) and is now Professor Bailey’s love-struck assistant. Many other Berliners have relocated to Southern California, Loeser finds to his disgust when he arrives in 1935. “As long as Brecht doesn’t turn up, I won’t have to jump into the ocean,” he remarks glumly. The playwright’s perennial offstage presence is a running gag, as is Loeser’s snaillike progress over the course of 30 years in reading Alfred Doblin’s very long novel “Berlin Alexanderplatz.”
The self-absorbed Loeser is indifferent to the threatening political situation that drove his compatriots from Germany. His personal and artistic credo is Equivalence: “The communist [is] no different from the Nazi, the priest from the gangster.” His cynicism is buttressed by the opportunism of his fellow expatriates. The homosexual he snorted coke with in Berlin earns pocket money in L.A. by sleeping with wealthy women. The composer he revered turns out to be a blackmailing Soviet agent. Not that Loeser is a paragon of principle himself. He never bothers to finish reading an anguished letter chronicling the persecution of Jews in Berlin because he’s too busy cashing checks as a Jewish board member of the Cultural Solidarity Committee of California and spying on Bailey for an eccentric millionaire who’s convinced that “mass transit of any kind tends to promote authoritarian socialist leanings in its users.”
Beauman flaunts an almost indecently pleasurable way with words as he piles on outrageous developments, including a series of gruesome murders at CalTech and culminating in an apocalyptic final test of Bailey’s teleportation chamber. He even provides four endings, complementary rather than mutually exclusive.
Occasional over-schematic plotting is about the only flaw in this dazzling entertainment. It’s rare for a book to stimulate the brain cells and the funny bone with equal gusto, but Beauman has a knack for embedding trenchant philosophical blasts in punch lines. “Loeser found it hard to believe that God was forever slapping the face of the universe,” he writes, “like a policeman trying to stop a drunk from falling asleep.”
Later, Loeser says, “History is an alarm clock I want to throw through the window,” offering an unwitting but apt alternative to Stephen Dedalus’s famous definition. (“Ulysses” is another book Loeser keeps meaning to read, if he ever finishes “Berlin Alexanderplatz.”)
You laugh, then you flinch. On the evidence of his first novel, “Boxer, Beetle,” and now this brilliantly clever and covertly humane book, Beauman promises to keep us laughing and flinching for years to come.
Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940,” which will be reissued in May.