D. Keith Mano's sixth novel, a picaresque epic which satirizes contemporary politics, sexuality and religion, is full of energy, invention and great gusts of hot air. More than anything, it is full of words. At one point, Mano's macho hero, filmmaker Simon Lynxx, describes himself as having "the biggest mouth in the East," and he is right.
The plot, which proceeds in a straightforward manner though the book is paginated backward, involves Simon's ingenious schemes to score money for his new film, "Jesus 2001," a "New Testament according to ITT." In one outrageously entertaining scene, Simon dresses up in blackface as a Masai prince to con money out of Harold Gluck, a formerly persecuted Jew with a politically useful artificial leg who is now director of the National Artists Minority Incentive Fund. When Simon claims he used to pick cotton in Lynch, Miss. ("An it were'n named after no man called Lynch"), Gluck offers this seasoned advice: "There are so many people who picked cotton. Why not say you picked something else: pockets, noses? And you are--it's too obvious--in a state of repulsive good health. Get run over by a car . . . No, better yet, a jeep. Then you can blame the military-industrial complex."
In addition to its exuberant gags and one-liners, "Take Five" offers a wealth of eccentric, oddly composed descriptive passages. Here is the death of Simon's mother just before she bites him on the ear:
"Death: Bettina's. She lay, not fragile then--frail, a frail--nourishment, its needle track, hooked up to one arm. Dry teeth pulled in/at her lip. Finger on finger, hands were sewn up across the nightgown chest. A hobo tumor, free-lancing, had made mulligan stew of her stale womb . . . Simon had driven, a guilt trip, eight hundred miles to see her off."
This passage, like so many others, is vivid and surreal but undermined by vulgarity and self-consciously clever metaphors. A more basic problem, however, is wordiness: "And suddenly it comes--wirewalking, whirling, tumbling, barreling, bowling, backflipping, juggling, harebrained, insane--a grotesque superconsciousness." Simon, we are told, lacks the ability to "omit, select, forget," but so does his author.
Mano's overwriting is most grating in the many scenes devoted to Simon's sexism and racism. When a young member of Simon's movie crew is repulsed by one of his statements, Simon responds that insult is "the U.S. prime stamp of a great associative mind . . . listen to Falstaff, name-calling is metaphor-making and the history of metaphor is the history of art." Simon, "great associative mind" that he is, practices this "art" mainly at the expense of women, who, he says, are "dough boring writers, painters, musicians" because "they don't know how to compete or want to . . . Metaphor-making is a game, there's body contact in it. There's victory in it." For Simon, "It's the men in groups, that's where the joy hangs out. Women don't have it. I get heartburn when I eat with women. They're closet Frenchmen . . . Civilization started dying the day we let women share our tables."
It is difficult to convey in a short review the full unpleasantness and tedium of these ugly tantrums. The astonishing thing is that the women--one of whom marries Simon at the end and calls herself a "feminist"--offer only the most perfunctory retorts. Indeed, Jews, blacks and homosexuals are equally willing to forgive Simon for his bigotry: He is, after all, such a "genius," so wonderfully "crazy" and rambunctious. And besides, as Simon asserts, people secretly enjoy being abused: "There is no more intimate relationship than that of dumper and dumped upon."
To be sure, other post-liberal heroes of recent satirical novels (Walker Percy's Lancelot Lamar, Kingsley Amis' Jake Richardson) unload similar diatribes, but not at such interminable length and with such shrill pomposity. In one scene, Simon calls women "a kind of unsuccessful fag," then declares this witticism to be "a well-lathed Wildean phrase," but surely Wilde would be appalled and quickly bored by such bilge.
That Simon is a character and not the author by no means resolves the problem. If we are meant to regard Simon's outbursts as mere "infantile carryings-on" (as the heroine understatedly puts it), we can only wonder why Mano, a gifted writer, stuffed so many of them into this otherwise intelligent novel or why, in a revealing handball scene, he has the omniscient narrator proclaim the same misogynous cliche's: "Victory has made him appear eerie, wizard-like . . . Merry will applaud, but she doesn't understand. Indeed, no woman can. Arnold does: he hugs Simon off the ground."
At the end, Simon, hospitalized from having lost his physical senses (which he typically attributes to an overloaded, overbrilliant imagination), claims that he has also lost his loudness and boorishness and that he has been "reformed" by his marriage to a female Episcopal priest. In the same scene, however, he tells his newly married uncle to "be a man" and beat up his wife; he seems less "reformed" than slowed by bad health.
"Take Five" is clever, even virtuosic, but it is ultimately only an intellectual good-old-boy novel. Although it features crude seduction attempts and unceasing locker-room talk, it offers not a single consummated sex scene. This disjuncture is characteristic of a book that unleashes torrents of words and special effects but little poetry and few insights.