BOWL OF CHERRIES
By Millard Kaufman
McSweeney's. 326 pp. $22
Once you reach a certain age, the appearance of yet another brilliant novel by someone barely old enough to vote is deeply irritating. It's akin to that moment when you realize while brushing your teeth before bed: "By the time Byron was my age, he'd been dead for 10 years."
Well, buck up. Here's a shot of adrenaline for middle-aged hopes, and it comes, of all places, from McSweeney's, that insufferably youthful publishing company in San Francisco run by Dave Eggers. Their lead title this fall is Bowl of Cherries, a smart, zany comedy by a first-time novelist who's 90 years old. A few film buffs may recognize the name Millard Kaufman -- he was nominated for two screenwriting Oscars in the 1950s ("Take the High Ground!" and "Bad Day at Black Rock") -- but everybody knows Mr. Magoo, the nearsighted cartoon klutz he created with John Hubley in 1949.
Now, almost 60 years later, Kaufman is back with another hapless hero who wanders around falling into mischief. Judd Breslau is an impossibly brilliant 14-year-old boy who's trying to finish his doctorate in English literature. When his father disappears and his mother waltzes off to Colorado to work for a poetry magazine that publishes her "dilapidated rhymes," Judd is left to fend for himself. And so begins one of the strangest journeys in American fiction, which, after all, specializes in the strange journeys of teenage boys.
Judd tells us his chaotic life story from a prison cell in Assama, a backwater province of Iraq, far south of where American soldiers are prosecuting their war on terror. He's waiting to be executed by ganching -- flung from a tower onto bamboo spikes -- a prospect that, he admits, "scrambles the circuitry, sunders my peace of mind, and plays hob with my nervous system." Nevertheless, he's writing this tale of how he came to die in Assama, rumored to have once been the site of the Garden of Eden. Now it's the only place on Earth where the inhabitants construct all their buildings from human excrement ("evacuative biodegradables," for marketing purposes).
That weird incongruity between highbrow/lowbrow humor is only part of what makes Bowl of Cherries so irresistible. Kaufman's comic imagination, his ability to mix things scatological and historical, political and philosophical, reminds one of those young'uns Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. The ridiculous slapstick in Assama is straight from Woody Allen's "Don't Drink the Water," and a cameo appearance by a goofy President Bush will take you back to "Dr. Strangelove." But Kaufman seems to have more heart than those '60s satirists; his precocious young hero pulls on our sympathies even as he trudges on through absurdity.
Judd's journey to the Assama prison begins months earlier when he's asked to leave Yale. Disappointed at first, he soon realizes it's a relief, "an end to abstruse striving, to dogmatic bluster, Talmudic dissection, to the fractured assignment of Meaning and Levels to a phrase, a clause, a guiltless comma which the author, pinned like a butterfly on a board, probably never intended . . . an end to the inkhorn vocabulary of literary scholarship that was like a throat disease."
Suffering a "premature midlife crisis," he takes a job at a crazy think tank in Baltimore, run by an Egyptologist who's on the verge of discovering how the pharaohs used sound waves to teleport limestone blocks to build the pyramids. For months, Judd is instructed to sit in his room, think about suicide and play a tuba while watching for any indications of levitation. He might have considered his new career a waste of time except that in this madhouse he spots Valerie, the director's "achingly beautiful" daughter, and falls instantly, irrevocably in love.
The rest of the story, which rambles through a farm in Colorado and a porn studio in New York before finally arriving in the once Edenic hellhole of modern-day Assama, is driven largely by Judd's efforts to win Valerie's affections. Over and over, powerful men use her to get Judd to help them pursue their schemes of world domination. In many ways Valerie seems an odd match for the young genius. When he tells her that her "home looks far from salubrious," she asks, "Where's Salubrious?" Completely smitten, Judd can see only that "she has an uncluttered mind," to which her father counters, "There's nothing in it."
But this is no ordinary boy. Planning his assault on Valerie's heart, he thinks, "We'll begin with the disarming bond of friendship, the epicene sedative which would give way imperceptibly to stronger medicine, a steamy philter to enflame her with a passion as ardent as mine."
I'm a little rusty on what 15-year-olds do to get girls, but unless they're trying to woo the SAT prep coach, I doubt any of them relies on "epicene sedatives" or "steamy philters." I can't remember when a novel kept me so chained to the dictionary ( asseverate? steatopygous? chalcedonic?). More than just comic pretension, though, Judd's vocabulary is all part of the story's explosive richness, its constant disruption of our expectations.
As the Iraq War grinds on in the north and insane men introduce nuclear fuel to help modernize Assama, everything points toward an apocalyptic finish. Judd finally sees the men who have used him for what they are: "puppets of their own passion," proclaiming their " service of mankind. A ringing dedication, shrill, clear, and dangerously self-deceptive." And yet Kaufman turns away from the cynical finale that easily could have finished Bowl of Cherries. Maybe something about surviving 90 years of disastrous human history has given him the courage to scrape out a little hope. Yes, there's a mushroom cloud -- all of Judd's bosses have learned to stop worrying and love the bomb -- but that's not enough to keep this young man down. Or Kaufman. He's reportedly working away on a second novel. Please, nobody distract him. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.