Curb Your Enthusiasm

Reviewed by Michael Schaub
Sunday, March 27, 2005

THE BONESBy Seth Greenland. Bloomsbury. 393 pp. $24.95

It speaks volumes about American television that someone had to coin the phrase "jumping the shark." A reference to a legendarily implausible "Happy Days" episode in which Fonzie performed a water-skiing stunt over a large, angry fish, the idiom refers to the moment when a television show starts resorting to ridiculous plot devices to maintain its ratings. It used to take several seasons for a show to jump the shark, but now it can happen before the first commercial break of the pilot episode. In the age of reality TV, this is what passes for progress in the American entertainment industry.

But what happens when a show jumps the shark before it's even aired? Take, for example, "Kirkuk," a wacky sitcom about a hip, walrus-riding Eskimo. There's no end to the types of marine life a show like that could jump if given the chance. In light of Hollywood's propensity to steal ideas from whatever source possible -- other countries, other networks, possibly certain species of apes -- don't be surprised if "Kirkuk" actually ends up as a midseason replacement somewhere down the line. But for now, it exists only in the pages of Seth Greenland's witty, sharp and surprisingly engaging debut novel, The Bones .

"The Bones" is Frank Bones, a middle-aged bad-boy comedian who's "looked upon by his contemporaries with a weird combination of admiration and pity; admiration for having stayed true to his vision and pity for the exact same reason." With his Texas upbringing, penchant for cutting social satire, and rock-music aspirations (he once had a band called Killer Bones), he comes across as a more flamboyant, reckless version of stand-up comedian Bill Hicks. Bones has had trouble finding work after a disastrous show in which he tried to silence a heckler by firing a loaded gun into a theater ceiling.

That can be a very hard act to live down, but Bones is offered the chance to resurrect his career with a sitcom on the Lynx network, which appears to be an edgy stand-in for Fox. Unfortunately, his resurrection is tied to "Kirkuk," and Bones doesn't see himself straddling an animatronic walrus for a paycheck. He asks an old acquaintance, Lloyd Melnick, to sign on to the show, hoping he'll be able to salvage something respectable out of the increasingly ridiculous premise. Melnick is Hollywood's most sought-after writer, having spent years on the hugely successful "Fleishman Show," a vapid family sitcom with "Seinfeld"-like ratings, while harboring fantasies of a more literary, respectable career.

Melnick, though, has problems of his own. He's stuck in a loveless marriage to an inveterate social climber and fashionable environmentalist, and he has to deal with a young son whom he's not even sure he likes. He rejects Bones's entreaties, infuriating the comedian, and chooses instead to develop a dreadful sitcom set in a Las Vegas massage parlor. ("We don't want to do a sleazy show," a network executive assures Melnick. "It won't be a sleazy massage parlor. It'll be a place where everyone knows your name.") He wants to leave as soon as he takes the job, but his wife, who has just moved them to an astronomically expensive Brentwood mansion, won't have it. Something has to give, of course, and it does, in a genuinely surprising manner. The disasters that ensue aren't ratings disasters but real ones, complete with car crashes, police chases and several switchblades and firearms.

As concepts go, this isn't exactly Gravity's Rainbow . But it's incredibly hard to write about comedy, and harder still to be funny while doing it. Greenland acquits himself pretty nicely, showing some very real comedy chops of his own. A lot of that has to do with timing, which he seems to understand instinctively. The Bones is paced tightly, and the transitions between Bones's and Melnick's narratives are mostly effortless. Greenland, who has worked as a writer for television ("Arliss") and film ("Who's the Man?"), takes to prose naturally, though he sometimes stumbles over his own cleverness. Declaring that squirrels "move with the studied insouciance of 1950s jazz musicians" is just confusing; describing the comedy business as "cultivating the japes of wrath" is a losing proposition from the start. Knowing when to rein yourself in is a skill prose writers pick up with time, though, and Greenland has time.

The flipside of that, of course, is knowing when to let yourself go. It takes a fairly manic imagination to come up with an animatronic walrus in the first place, and it takes real talent -- and something like compassion -- to get the reader to care about the guy who's riding it. The Bones is not a perfect novel, but Greenland has serious skills. One walrus, no sharks: not a bad track record for a first-time novelist. •

Michael Schaub is associate editor of the literary webzine and blog

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