Review: William Peter Blatty's 'Crazy'

By Elizabeth Hand
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 7:30 PM

CRAZY

By William Peter Blatty

Forge. 188 pp. $22.99

It's hard to believe, but local horror meister William Peter Blatty once had a booming career as a funny guy. In addition to his comic novels, he worked with Blake Edwards on several films, including "A Shot in the Dark," the second Inspector Clouseau movie; he loved P.G. Wodehouse; and he was even compared to S.J. Perelman. All this came before those looming steps in Georgetown forever linked Blatty with his best-known work, "The Exorcist" (1971).

Which makes his new novel, "Crazy," a return to form. It's a sweet-natured, often hilarious tale cast as the memoirs of an 82-year-old former screenwriter named Joey El Bueno. Joey's writing from a 10th-floor room at Bellevue Hospital, where the usually suspicious Nurse Bloor doesn't raise an eyebrow at his laptop because "she has read Archy and Mehitabel and knows that sometimes even a rat can type."

Joey is the son of an Irish beauty who died giving birth to him and an impoverished Peruvian immigrant who made his living pushing a hot dog cart. Joey's memoir takes us back to the year he was a seventh-grader at St. Stephen's, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, in 1941. That's where he first meets Jane Bent, a street-smart, foul-mouthed transfer student from Our Lady of Sorrows. At first, Joey finds her "nuttier than a truckload of filberts," but that changes when Jane flashes a $5 bill and suggests an afternoon at the movies.

Many hours and three screenings of "Gunga Din" later, the two seem to have become an inseparable pair. Then they part, and Joey never sees her again. Not that Jane, anyway.

I won't say more lest I spoil the pleasures of this lovely, time-shifting novel, which evokes a lost New York complete with a school excursion to Coney Island and side trips to "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir." It's like a classic Jean Shepherd anecdote with supernatural overtones. Blatty also cites Ray Bradbury and Robert Nathan as influences, and "Crazy" more than once invokes Kurt Vonnegut. Joey's memoir favors run-on sentences with a comedic payoff: "There was a breeze and these jillions of gulls all circling and squawking forlornly but with great agitation and high excitement as if they were in factions that were blaming one another for the loss of some unspoiled world, some paradise where every automobile was a convertible and where hats and awnings did not exist."

Blatty has always been upfront about his Catholic faith. The opening of "The Exorcist" evokes "Lucifer upward-groping back to his God," and Crazy's poignant final pages make clear that, rather than an exercise in nostalgia, this novel is a reminder of Saint Paul's command, "While we have time, let us do good." Or, as Joey puts it, "What would Kurt Vonnegut do?"

Hand's most recent novel is "Illyria."


© 2010 The Washington Post Company