Watch Out, New York

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

MONSTER, 1959

By David Maine

St. Martin's. 244 pp. $23.95

In David Maine's Monster, 1959, a giant creature living on an uncharted island captures a blonde and retreats with her into the jungle. A rescue party gives chase. Disaster ensues. If you think you've seen this story before, you're right, but never quite like this.

K, the monster of the novel's title, is no great ape. As bewildered as his namesake in Kafka's The Trial, K is the mutant result of American A-bomb tests in the Pacific in the 1950s, "a forty-foot-tall, claw-fingered, mammalian- reptilian-insectoid gargantua with feathers." With K at its center, the novel stomps through familiar turns and twists with all the force of myth, populated by an engaging cast of characters. There's Billy Quinn, the impresario who literally has sex with all the dollar bills K earns him; Doug, the freakishly tall clown, whose despair sets off the final act; the dreamy Alensha, who gives herself over to the monster; and, most vivid, K himself, a creature bizarre enough "to cause Darwin to burn his notebooks and run shrieking to the nearest monastery," but whose dim inner life has a genuine pathos.

Maine, whose previous novels were brilliant retellings of Bible stories, gets most of the details just right. His hero is a grotesque amalgam of every cheesy monster ever projected onto a drive-in movie screen, and everyone around K speaks in grade-A B-movie dialogue. What makes the novel oddly relevant, though, is the feel of a nation on the cusp of some huge change it can't quite fathom.

Any story that has a mutant resulting from American atomic ambitions running wild through the streets of New York before ending at a Statue of Liberty glowing "green, like something irradiated or unhealthy, like one of Marie Curie's nightmares," will have a political subtext. Maine uses a selective history of the 1950s as proof of the supposed racist underpinnings of American and, disturbingly off point, Israeli policy -- a development so maddening and distracting as to nearly sink the whole enterprise. But when the polemics fade and Maine's evocative prose takes control, as in the telling of the creation myth recited by the elders on K's island, he creates something uniquely strange and beautiful.

Just before K begins his assault on New York, he's taunted by the hunter who brought him to America: "Rage blinded him, literally, a red wash sliding across his vision as animal fury and existential angst collided in a chain reaction of unrestrained id: King Lear meets King Kong." Not quite. But grab the popcorn and snuggle up with this engaging horror-movie of a book.

-- Tyler Knox is the author of the novel "Kockroach."


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