READERS SHOULD take due warning when they see where Todd McEwen selects the mottoes for his novel, Fisher's Hornpipe. The first is from Dante: "To describe the bottom of all the universe is no enterprise to undertake in sport." What? For a comic novel set in Boston? Walden furnishes the second, with Thoreau complaining that, "I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust." Before too many more pages go by, it becomes clear that Boston really is the bottom of the universe for McEwen, and that he's quite serious in his determination to toss the whole of its urban clutter out the window during the course of this sportily written but grumpy first novel.
McEwen starts off with a fine comic premise. William Fisher, a disaffected young administrator at a Boston scientific institute, visits frozen Walden Pond a few days before Christmas. Venturing out onto the ice, he hears a tapping sound coming from underneath, and looks down to see Thoreau, naked and with a beard full of fish, entreating him by means of a placard to assist by running to fetch "Mr. Emerson." In his zeal to comply, Fisher slips on the ice and cracks his head on the surface of the pond, then loses consciousness. After awakening from this Thoreauean baptism, Fisher is ready to begin the strenuous dance promised in the book's title.
Its fancy footwork propels him into McEwen's dismal cityscape, however, which is presented with unrelieved hostility:
"The Boston which features in this narrative sits at the bottom of a great bowl. Perhaps a natural bowl of geology such as the great crater Los Angeles sits in? You can think that if you want! But Boston rests at the bottom of a huge toilet gentle reader . . . The Bostonian's sky is dark, his horizon is porcelain . . . all they (sic) see hear feel smell is The A--. Squatting resolutely above. Producing a continuous unholy cacation which the hapless populace term rain or snow . . ."
This Boston as Bog image becomes one of the book's running gags, with the perpetrator of the foul weather arraigned by name every few pages.
But rain and snow are the least of Fisher's worries. He is soon caught up in a surreal vortex of chance events that culminates in his becoming the unwilling spokesman for the city's vagrants, whom by a conspiracy of circumstance he winds up leading in a Christmas Eve attack on Quincy Market, a bastion of high-fashion commercialism, which leaves it in ruins.
In orchestrating Fisher's spiraling misadventures, McEwen takes the liberties of the farceur, sending him off on tangents of irrational behavior to set him up for a fall. But although these are spun off in an appropriately jaunty staccato style, all too often the fun is missing. There's real malice under the joky facade, and its abrasiveness wears the reader down. Everyone Fisher encounters in Boston misunderstands, abandons or betrays him. Every vehicle tries to run him down. Even Fisher's cherished violin, which he calls Mr. Squeaky and carries with him everywhere, sabotages him repeatedly before it goes up in smoke.
By the time Fisher flees his urban nightmare to lie low with his friend Balluno, a would-be poet who rents a house on the Rhode Island shore, there doesn't seem to be much a Walden-style retreat can do for him. But at the end McEwen introduces a mysterious Thoreau figure, suitably named Henry, whom Fisher encounters on the beach. The two cooperate in an effort to expose man-made articles to the forces of natural erosion by the sea. "It's been so long since an intact manufactured object was given for erosion," says Henry as Fisher presents him with a chair liberated from his friend's cluttered home. "What a pleasure to see the paint then the weaving and lastly the ferrules go!" Once again, dusty furniture is being tossed to the elements, and the furniture of Fisher's mind, presumably will get a dusting.
It's a shame McEwen didn't keep his disgust on a shorter leash. There are passages where his disfavor is more tempered, and where it blossoms into satire. One particularly delectable target is a crafts-and-natural- foods dictatorship of a group house where a misread copy of Walden would almost certainly be on the bookshelf. Grain coffee is served in a room "decorated with tangles of decomposing rope, the traditional craft of a smaller African people recently bombed off the map," and the law is laid down in multicolored notes an charts: "On Tuesday I found someone (who shall be nameless!!) using the light green sponge on the stove top. . . . THE LIGHT GREEN SPONGE IS FOR THE SINK ONLY AND ANYONE WHO HAS FORGOTTEN THE SPONGE CODES SHOULD LOOK AT CHART NO. 12 ON THE BASEMENT DOOR. Have a nice day."
Whatever its failings, however, there's something exhilarating about a novel which lets loose at the reader with such energy and gusto. These are times when so much new fiction displays exquisite stylistic manicuring and then goes on to find its vision in slightly curdled marriages, the Armageddon in the den, the quiche apocalypse.
Now that Todd McEwen has settled his score with Boston, it's to be hoped that for his next novel he's sizing up other targets with the same zest but less rancor. A book like that would really dance.