NO READER should be misled by the title of Steve Katz's new novel into dismissing it as a whimsical exercise in wordplay. Wier & Pouce is a work of power and imagination as arresting as anything which has appeared during the past several years. And although Katz has packed the book with acknowledging allusions to the novels and films that have influenced him, it is completely original. No other book comes to mind that resembles it at all.
The content of Wier & Pouce defies summarization, but the Tolstoyan pun of the title hints at the design which underlies the fantastic dovetailing of its many plots. The names belong to the two men around whom most of the action of the novel's seven sections centers. Both have strong personalities which Katz projects vigorously: Dusty Wier the decent guy and resourceful Everyman, the type who survives disasters and permits the species to keep on a peaceful footing most of the time; E. Pouce the embodiment of irrational, unmotivated evil who delights in destruction.
Wier and Pouce first meet in college, and Katz signals the importance of the episode by decking it out in a gaudy and deliberately artificial style based on permutations of the letters in their names. But this eruption subsides into an account of Wier's marriage to his college sweetheart Olivia and of his attempt to set up housekeeping for her in the small southern Italian town of Lecce, all told in an evocative style full of humor and compassion.
But not for long. Katz addresses the reader directly:
"Dear Reader: I never expected, nor did I ever desire, to say 'dear reader' again, but here I must beg your indulgence just one more time. . . The story of Dusty and his family broke up. The story of Dusty losing the woman he loved so bad . . . because fellas and girls, let me tell you this, some sweetest things is begun with a kiss; but when it's over, she's away and gone, it feels like your heart's shaved down to the bone . . ."
He continues this down-home lament to say that the sadness of Dusty's breakup with Olivia is too intense for narration to bear, and declares his intention of telling it "as anonymous(ly) as the breeze of alphabets." Dusty's agony of loneliness is then related in a relaxed version of Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa style:
"Are All Adults Alone After Amour, Dusty Asks. After long marriage, After Another long Amour's Amiss, Aieee! Alone Appears As Absolute Alternative. -- All women Are Alike. All men Also, Dusty Apostrophizes. -- All Are Abnormal."
THIS IS THE book's last fit of pure style, and also the end of its first, primarily realistic part. After the destruction of Dusty's home, Pouce-like irrationality gets the upper hand and straightforward narrative yields to a strange mix of fantasy and surrealism. The specific facts of the characters' lives shift and blur, until Wier and Pouce come to seem like characters in some huge, Bosch-grotesque folktale, embodying the sustaining and the destructive aspects of human nature.
When Dusty next appears, he seems never to have experienced either his marriage or the episode in southern Italy. Later, when a garrulous reader seated next to him in the New York Public Library bends his ear with tales of experiences in Lecce, it appears evident that Dusty has never been there, and the reader gets the strange sensation of this experience having been transferred to the talker like a forgotten garment. Pouce also undergoes a transformation. After losing most of his face in an accident, he becomes an elusive, phantasmal figure who conceives and realizes destructive projects on an apocalyptic scale, and there are intimations that he may actually be some projected dark apect of Dusty's mind.
The latter half of Wier & Pouce incorporates dozens of interlocking tales, many of which are astonishingly imaginative and have the aura of dreams. One character discovers he can walk straight through a wall of his apartment because it is made up of millions of tiny blue-eyed bats, each holding captive the soul of one New Yorker. At another point, Dusty and a drunken friend peer from a rowboat to see a giant on the ocean floor off Nova Scotia: "The face in the deep seemed modelled out of silver mined on the moon. It turned slowly from side to side, as if having its own dream." Katz's writing matches the material in inventiveness -- in one section he sustains three levels of narrative at once -- but his phantasmagoria is carefully organized, and its many strands reunite at the novel's visionary conclusion.
With a book as striking as this, it is tempting to play the book reviewer's game of comparisons ("Reads like Maloror rewritten by Ernie Kovacs"), but that won't do here, especially since Katz is so diligent about citing the precedents himself. At one particularly Garc,ia M,arquez-like juncture, a woman has a realization: "Now she understood the damn novel into which her life had been diverted; one of those trippy South American books, written from a position of privilege and political apathy. . ." When all of the people who have figured in Dusty's life reassemble in Nova Scotia for a softball game at the novel's conclusion, a character points up the similarity to 81/2 with the observation, "Sometimes I feel like we live in a movie by Fellini." Nods are also given in the direction of Thomas Pynchon's V in Wier & Pouce's very last sentence, to Berg's Wozzeck in the unresolved catrastrophe of its final pages.
Despite its complexity, Wier & Pouce is vastly readable, and most readers will probably finish off its 365 pages in a couple of sittings. Katz's sympathy for his characters give it an emotional wallop of the type rarely found in fiction as determinedly anti-realistic as this, and once finished, it clings to the mind. Those who have learned that these days many of the interesting developments in American literature take place on its shaggy underside have probably already found Wier & Pouce and placed it on their shelves alongside the novels of Harry Mathews and Coleman Dowell. Others should take the plunge, buy the book, and be prepared to start pushing it off on friends.