Book Review: 'Body Surfing' by Dale Peck

By Elizabeth Hand,
whose 10th novel, "Wonderwall," about the poet Arthur Rimbaud, will be published this fall.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009


By Dale Peck

Atria. 417 pp. $26

The virginal teenagers and swooning vampires of Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series wouldn't last long in Dale Peck's violent, overheated supernatural thriller, "Body Surfing." The author of several previous novels, as well as the "Drift House" children's series, Peck may be best known for the caustic reviews he penned for the New Republic, which were collected in "Hatchet Jobs" (2004). His earlier adult books were uneven but ambitious, featuring lyrical writing and unconventional narrative structures. "Body Surfing" seems to have been penned by someone else entirely, with an eye on next year's Bad Sex in Fiction Award (and perhaps a special commendation for Mayhem).

The novel's demonic antagonist, Leo, is one of an ancient race known as the Mogran, who survive through the millenniums by flitting from one hapless mortal host to another. Like a supernatural computer worm, these demons temporarily invade your consciousness; once there, they usurp your memories and give you enhanced physical, psychic and intellectual powers.

Tired of one body, a Mogran merely surges into another, a passage that can be facilitated by having sex with a new, unwitting and often unwilling partner. Occasionally, a discarded host survives with a permanent souvenir of his or her possession: lightning reflexes, accelerated healing, a memory that Brainiac 5 might envy. More often, he or she is just dead.

In a brief prologue, the Emperor Nero watches a young boy take on a rhinoceros in the Coliseum, a scene that makes one long for the elegant restraint of Bob Guccione's "Caligula":

"The boy gouged out the animal's eyes with his bare hands and continued to jab at the pulpy sockets until the beast shook its head so violently that the boy's body was ripped in half, torso flying in one direction, legs in the other." The precocious eye-gouger turns out to be possessed by Leo, a fledgling demon. Two thousand years and 46,881 hosts later, Leo gets under the skin of 17-year-old Mohammed Qusay Jr., know as Q to his buddies at Dearborn Academy. Under Leo's influence, Q takes three friends, including his best pal, Jasper, and Jasper's girlfriend, Michaela, on a joy ride. Michaela and Q perform a sex act that you should never, ever attempt if you are behind the wheel of your father's Porsche. It ends in a fiery climax, with Jasper dead, Michaela hospitalized with a broken neck, and Q miraculously unscathed, a major advantage of having a demon inside you.

But wait: Jasper's not really dead! Turns out Leo has hijacked his consciousness; he can do this without having sex with Jasper because poor Jasper died a virgin. Not for long, though, because Leo abandons Jasper's consciousness, leaving Jasper stuck in the body of another friend, dumpy old Jarhead. Still, Jasper does eventually get to have sex, even if not in his own ripped 17-year-old corpus. By the end of "Body Surfing," Jasper's consciousness is in Michaela's body, but so is Q, or maybe Jasper has possessed Q's body with Michaela's consciousness? There's also a subplot involving a Mogran hunter named Ileana, who appears to have been possessed by Lara Croft. Did I mention the mad hypnotherapist, the sex-crazed EMT and an even more sex-crazed resident in psychiatry?

And hey -- where's Leo?

It's difficult to keep track of all the possessed/dispossessed/repossessed characters; it's even more difficult to care about a single one of them.

I appreciate gratuitous sex and violence as much as the next person, but not when it's this badly written. The hypnotherapist nods "his stately, philosophical head"; Q is disturbed by memories of "ungovernable, irresistible lust." Villains pause from their villainy to deliver explanations that would embarrass Dr. Evil. Someone actually says, "Just be quiet and no one will get hurt." And this is a sample exchange among our heroes:

Jasper remembered the way the doctor's head had dangled off his shoulders.

[Expletive], Michaela said inside him.

"[Expletive]," Jasper said out loud.

"[Expletive] is right," said Q. He looked over at Michaela. Looked her up and down. Touched the spot on her neck where Ileana's knife had sunk in.

"Jesus [expletive]."

Speaking of heroes, last year Peck signed a $3 million deal to write a three-book series with Tim Kring, creator of the "Heroes" television series. "Body Surfing" (not one of that trilogy) comes with a nice blurb from Kring, and Peck gives a big wink to "Heroes" fans with a minor character named Mohinder. All of which makes me wonder: Given his past as a respected writer of literary fiction, and a possible future in the land of commercial blockbusters, whatever possessed Dale Peck to write this book?

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