The War Against Terror Comes to Kansas
Wednesday, April 1, 2009; Page C04
By Torsten Krol
Harper Perennial. 437 pp. Paperback, $14.99
People around the world got their hands on Torsten Krol's dark, goofy novel almost two years before readers in America, which isn't entirely fair since it's about us. This satire of the war on terror might have cut a little deeper during the surge, before our war president retired to Dallas and the recession eclipsed Iraq. But "Callisto" is still a witty sendup of the anxieties that make Americans so dangerous, and ultimately it's barbed with enough tragedy to sting.
The author is something of a mystery, allegedly an Australian who refuses all interviews. He claims to have raised a family in the United States before his divorce, which sent him into a fit of depression that inspired this tale of America's terrorism paranoia. The novel's success rests on the rambly voice of its hilariously clueless narrator, a large 21-year-old hayseed from Wyoming named Odell Deefus. People "most likely think I'm a tall dumb hick but they would be wrong about that," Odell says by way of introduction. "I know this because I have read 'The Yearling' sixteen times now, and that is a Pulitzer Prize book which you can't be dumb and be able to read it." There's something mesmerizing about the way Odell teeters along the line between sense and nonsense, tripping over his own grammar and then barely righting himself. He sounds an awful lot like Will Ferrell imitating George W. Bush, complete with wacky malapropisms ("extenderating circumstances") and declarations of savviness. But the real object of Krol's scorn isn't this innocent rube; it's the corrupt culture that abuses him.
Odell's story begins when he's driving to Callisto, Kan., to enlist in the Army so he can "be a good soldier against the mad dog Islamites over there exploding . . . their own people." In his wallet he carries a photo of Condoleezza Rice, "about the smartest woman on the planet and the most decent also, rushing about from one country to the next in her plane fixing things between nations and doing everything she can for world peace and whatnot, all the while looking very trim and smart in her outfits with the pearls and always with a smile." But before he makes it to Callisto and gets a chance to help Condi fight "Sammy bin Laden," Odell's car breaks down. When he walks up to a run-down country house for help, he falls deeper into the twisted battle against terror than he ever could have imagined.
The novel's funniest parts come in this early section, when Odell is invited in by a young ne'er-do-well who claims that his aunt, the owner of the house, is away on vacation. An open grave in the back yard gives Odell pause. "My mind," he tells us, "was all aswirl with trying to figure out what's happening here." Finding a body in the basement freezer only adds to his suspicions (though it doesn't quell his hunger for frozen pizza). And soon the novel revs up for a macabre farce, a la the Coen brothers, that involves filling and redigging that grave at least half-a-dozen times. "This is called adapting to circumstances," Odell says, "which I was very fast learning I had the knack of."
The novel's screwball comedy goes national when Odell's cadaverous antics attract the attention of the FBI, which "suspicions" that he's involved with Islamic terrorists set on disrupting the 2008 presidential election. "I was in deep doo-doo as the saying goes." A Jerry Falwell-like preacher with Washington connections makes a play for Odell's soul, while whipping up racial anxieties on TV "in these days of internal threat and menace." Poor Odell finds himself drawn into competing schemes controlled by people convinced he's the linchpin to a dangerous conspiracy -- a dark inversion of Jerzy Kosinski's "Being There." When an FBI agent says, "You're smarter than you look," Odell assures him, "No I am not." But all his denials are taken only as proof of fathomless depth behind his naive demeanor.
Unfortunately, like Odell's car, the plot of "Callisto" sputters and conks out before it gets where it's going. There's a thick subplot involving corrupt guards at a local prison that doesn't deliver enough jokes or satiric jabs, and once we've chuckled over Odell's verbal tics, the comedy seeps out of these pages. "Callisto" would have been twice as good at half its length, and it doesn't help that Odell admits (on Page 436!) that it's "much longer than I intended for it to be."
That's particularly disappointing because the novel's finale is a knockout, a wrenching portrayal of America's efforts to snuff out the enemy within. Here, in the secret recesses of our government's most brutal prison, the lack of comedy works just right. Odell slips from the zaniness of "Arsenic and Old Lace" to the horrors of "1984." When he says, despite everything, "I felt like joining the Army all over again," the full tragedy of what we've endured becomes piercingly clear.
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