THERE IS a certain type of contemporary novel that aspires to the condition of a three-ring circus -- busy, noisy, flashy, fast- paced, fun-packed, aggressively uncerebral and unliterary. Such novels tend to be populated by characters who have goofy names, wear goofy clothes, hold goofy jobs, repeat goofy catch phrases; everything is wilder, swifter, dopier, and more colorful than in real life. This kind of book seems to be aimed at severe cathode-ray addicts -- at folks who think dramatic tension means a car chase, whose idea of internal conflict is a voice-over interior monologue on Ryan's Hope.
Though its field of reference is not television but the comic strips, you only have to look at the cover of Funny Papers -- every inch of which is crammed with richly-hued people, doggies, funny hats, umbrellas, and balloons -- to recognize it as an example of the Three-Ring Circus School of Literature. This is not to deny Tom De Haven's sincerity or artistic integrity; Funny Papers is clearly a labor of love, an affectionate tribute to a popular art form which is -- like jazz, baseball, musical comedy, the crossword puzzle, and chop suey -- peculiarly American. But the fact remains that this book is deliberately, even belligerently, goofy. It is not only about comic strips; in a large sense it is itself a comic strip.
The novel is set in turn-of-the-century Manhattan (the birthplace of the funnies) on fantasy thoroughfares with comic-strip names like Penalty Street and Awful Alley, and in buildings with names like Calamity Flats and Filch Hall. The dramatis personae (with the exception of a handful of real historical figures, like Hearst and Pulitzer, who make cameos Ragtime) sport such monikers as Blinky Conroy, Texas Frankie, Doctor Narcoticus, Spatterdash, Spit, Punch, Three-Nut Case, Canary Ella, Paradise O'Day, Johnny Chill, and Sarsaparilla Reilly. And none of these people -- indeed, nobody in the book -- is more complex or more believable than his nutty name would suggest. "People aren't cartoons," declares a character toward the end of Funny Papers, and it's obvious De Haven wants us to make something of this. But what? We already know people aren't cartoons; what we wonder is, why has De Haven chosen to write about them (and at such length!) as if they were?
The novel has two protagonists: a young man named Georgie Wreckage and a boy named Pinfold. Georgie is an aspiring sketch artist who, early in the book, lands a job illustrating grisly homicides for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Pinfold is a baldheaded, nightshirt-wearing street Arab whom Georgie meets during a "trophy supper" held by the Brotherhood of Hooligans and Lawbreakers at Mother Polk's house of prostitution. Pinfold is there to sell prophylactics; Georgie, for his part, has heard that a notorious cutpurse named Billy McCord is to be bumped off at the supper, and has shown up (disguised, naturally, in blackface) to sketch the corpse. A crazy evening ensues, and at the end of it McCord is dead, Pinfold is the new owner of McCord's dog Fuzzy (who, they tell him, can talk), and Georgie has been inspired to execute a drawing of the very odd boy and his unique mutt -- a picture that appears on the news pages of the World and evolves, before the month is out, into an extremely popular weekly comic strip, "Pinfold & Fuzzy."
Voil and famous. He moves to a lavish apartment on West Ninth Street, just off Fifth Avenue. But he's not happy. Like the protagonist of many another modern American novel (or, for that matter, Daddy Warbucks), he finds material success empty, unfulfilling. He despises himself for giving in to his bosses' crass commercialism -- their insistence, for example, that he make changes in "Pinfold & Fuzzy" to conform with merchandising plans. Before long the World-weary Georgie has taken to drink, has hired a teen ager named Walt Geebus to ghostwrite his strip, and has turned to real art, painting dark, unsettling canvases that are condemned even by a member of the avant-garde Ashcan School as "Morbid. Morbid. Morbid." (Neither De Haven nor any of his creations say something just once if he can help it.) Pinfold's life is no bed of roses, either: his condom business is kaput, his dog refuses to talk (was it just ventriloquism? We never learn for sure), and -- worst of all -- the ubiquitousness of his comic-strip namesake makes him feel as if his identity's been pinched.
AT ABOUT this point, we begin to get the picture. De Haven, the wily devil, means to have it both ways with Funny Papers; this is not only supposed to be an overblown, lightheaded romp through Comic Land, but a four- color, six-panel, TV-age American tragedy -- a devastating exploration of the nature of identity, of the conflicts between reality and imitation, art and commerce, and, above all, the barrenness of the American dream. "This is America, ain't it? Ain't this America?" -- the refrain, signifying the speaker's pathetically boundless faith in the promise of America, is repeated (by a number of characters) at least a dozen times in the course of Funny Papers. And they keep on saying it long after De Haven has made his point.
Indeed, the novel keeps on long after it's made its point. Eventually De Haven leads Georgie through a comic-strip version of the usual Norris-Dreiser- Mailer anti-hero paces. By the end of the book he is meant to be a devastating symbol, no less, of the "wreckage" (get it?) of the glorious American dream by Gilded-Age greed.
Needless to say, it just doesn't play. The lightweight comic-strip canvas of Funny Papers is altogether too flimsy to suport the heavyweight themes that De Haven attempts (and rather hamhandedly, at that) to load onto it. To be sure, the novel has several things going for it -- wit, humor, and warmth; some of the characters (Pinfold and Fuzzy in particular) are, in spite of their lack of dimension, truly endearing, in much the same manner as Charlie Brown, Linus, and Snoopy. But to say this is simply to recognize that, to a limited extent, the novel works on the same level as a comic strip -- and that's hardly enough. CAPTION: Picture, Tom De Haven. Photo Copyright (c) 1985 by Joyce Ravid.