BOONVILLE

By Robert Mailer Anderson

Perennial. 258 pp. Paperback, $12.95

The publishing history of this wildly funny first novel is proof positive that good writing sooner or later will find its way into print and then into the marketplace, no matter how obscure the author or how unlikely his literary prospects. Robert Mailer Anderson fits the description. Now in his mid-thirties, he is, according to the author bio at the front of his book, a fifth-generation Californian, from "a clan comprised largely of railroad workers, San Quentin prison guards, and tamale vendors," who attended the University of Miami for a while and eventually got to New York, "where he had a series of unfulfilling jobs: selling suits, telemarketing, moving furniture, and temping."

It seems to have been in New York that the urge to write struck him, and it was there that he was first published, in 1995, in Christopher Street, a homosexual literary publication; after that "he began referring to himself as 'the heterosexual voice of gay lit.' " With his wife and son, he returned to California and kept on writing. Then, in 2001, Boonville was published by Creative Arts Book Company, a small but respected firm in Berkeley. He got a few name-brand blurbs (Norman Mailer, Martin Cruz Smith, Carl Hiaasen) and enthusiastic reviews in the Northern California press, and picked up something of a cult following.

In time, word of all this reached New York, where someone at HarperCollins decided there might be a market beyond California for Boonville. So now we have it in a Perennial paperback edition, and thank the Lord for that. It's the funniest first novel by an American writer to come my way since John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces -- another book, interestingly if coincidentally, that had to overcome its own share of obstacles and doubts before making it into mainstream publishing -- and/or Robert Plunket's My Search for Warren Harding. It's unlikely that Boonville will enjoy the phenomenal success of Dunces -- a success attributable not merely to its merits but also to a complicated pre-publication history that produced a lot of favorable publicity -- but it should raise the laughter level considerably in a nation sorely in need of same.

Anderson's biography says that while in New York "he did standup comedy, once." There must have been a problem with his delivery, because much of Boonville is a socko standup routine right out of Mort Sahl by way of Shelly Berman, Bob Newhart and Lenny Bruce. Anderson tosses off one-liners with what football coaches like to call reckless abandon. Here, by way of example, we find the novel's protagonist, John Gibson, starting his day:

"John wondered if waking up in Boonville was the worst thing the world had to offer. Worse than Turkish prisons, worse than being buried alive, worse than reruns of 'Three's Company,' fruitcakes, heavy metal, herpes, Lee Iacocca, being trapped in an elevator with Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and Whitney Houston, who all want to sing rounds of show tunes until you're rescued. . . . Glenn Close, Nancy Reagan, and Connie Chung were getting ready to put in disturbing appearances. . . . Why were his worst dreams filled with women? They couldn't represent the ones in his waking life, he thought. . . . He hated his father more than anyone, his subconscious knew that. Why didn't he dream of Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, or Andy Rooney? Running post patterns for Dan Marino in US 1. Fishing trips with Sylvester Stallone, William F. Buckley, and Benny Hill. Sandwiched in a sleeping bag between the Shah of Iran and John Denver, who were rubbed down in marshmallow cream."

Ah yes, Boonville. It's a real place, about a hundred miles north of San Francisco, in the hills where tourists sip wine, hippies try to keep the '60s alive and good ole boys prowl the two-lane roads in rusty pickups and ramshackle Camaros. John has been willed a cabin in these hills by his lately deceased grandmother, who told him of the beauties of Boonville but also imparted to him one of the great unspoken truths about these United States: "If you travel fifty miles outside any city in America, it's Faulkner country." Or, if you prefer, Deliverance country. Whatever, it can be bizarre, and it can be trouble.

Boonville turns out to be both, bizarre most particularly, which is probably what drew Grandma to it in the first place. "She was a strange woman," one of the locals tells John, "but she grew the best Mendo Mellow in the county." She was deep into eco-protesting and "the endangered-species cause ce{acute}le{grv}bre," and she made huge squirrel sculptures from driftwood, hundreds of them, maybe thousands. She may be gone now, but her spirit lives on in the 350-pound person of her friend Pensive Prairie Sunset, who says, "I am an instrument in the shape of a woman trying to translate pulsations into images for the relief of the body and the reconstruction of the mind," and who hangs out with the Radical Petunia Arts Community. With joy she tells the world: "I am a radiant being filled with light and love! . . . I am an open channel of creative energy! My life is blossoming into total perfection! I accept both the size and the shape of my breasts!"

Like the rest of the hippies, Pensive spends a lot of time at the main house of the Waterfall commune, which is "where the community stored its harvested dope and the Bang and Olufsen, a stereo so sound-sensitive and powerful that you could rock out to 'Woodstock' and, adjusting treble and bass, isolate the voice of the one guy who booed Hendrix." Among the others to be found there are the beautiful Sarah McKay and her mother, who plays Janis Joplin albums full-throttle around the clock and pines for the countercultural good old days. John misses his girlfriend back in Miami, but of course he's drawn to Sarah, with consequences that vary from the violent to the vaguely theological, with many strange stops along the way.

The novel peters out a bit toward the end, as Anderson takes a turn toward the serious for which the reader is not entirely prepared, but so much of what goes before is so good that this is a small price to pay. There are wild and crazy characters galore, among them Sarah's homicidal ex-husband, a trio of large economy-size brothers forever spoiling for a fight, a deputy sheriff who is "the first law enforcement officer John had met to openly promote anarchy," and the various members of the Future Primitives, who are sworn to "renounce language, revert to all fours, and respond to your sexual instincts." Some of the natives who haven't renounced language speak something called "Boontling," which "was developed by locals suspicious of outside influences" and sounds like this: "Bahl or nonch. You got a classic johnem of a crayzeek cock-darley and a lizzied appoled ready to pike. Turn this cow-skullsey Boont into a skype region, a kingster of squeekyteeks. Any oshtook ridgy could see that. But I ain't one to harp lews 'n larmers."

No doubt Berlitz will soon be offering total-immersion courses. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.