Kelly Cherry aspires in this, her third novel, to political and social satire, and near the end she declares: "If there have been readers, of any persuasion, who were offended by a little levity . . . let us admit that life as it is lived on earth is certainly deadly serious; but in the imagination, we may all be free." To which can only be said: Yes, but--yes, but it is one thing to grant oneself imaginative license and quite another to employ it toward amusing or revealing ends. This latter Kelly Cherry most emphatically fails to do.
"In the Wink of an Eye" is a good-natured book, but that's not enough. A work of fiction requires more than impeccable highmindedness (this one is "Dedicated to Oppressed Peoples Everywhere IN HOPE") if it is to rise above mere platitudinizing; "In the Wink of an Eye" never gets off the ground. It's a messy ragout of everything from "Catch-22" to "Dr. Strangelove" to "The Yellow Submarine" to "One Hundred Years of Solitude" to "Destination Moon," and heaven only knows what else, but it succeeds only in being less than the sum of its many influences.
It begins agreeably enough with a small band of Bolivian rebels, led by Miguel and his deputy Ramon, whose first goal is the liberation of their embattled and exploited nation:
"Landlocked Bolivia, dependent on Chile for the use of a single railroad to the Pacific coast though two hundred miles of that coast had once been Bolivia's--dependent on Chile though Chile had stolen the coastal desert of Antofagasta--and dependent on Stroessner's Paraguay for a single river port, this encircled Bolivia was everybody's target. It was a buffer for the relations between its five neighbors, contiguous neighbors, and their gain was Bolivia's loss, for over the years, each of them had encroached upon the circle, shrinking its circumference, chipping away at little Bolivia mercilessly. Meanwhile the imperialists from Norteame'rica went straight to the center: cheap tin."
It's not difficult, unfortunately, to see exactly where this is going to lead us: to noble Latins and vulpine gringos, and that is just where we go. In a dizzying succession of events that is obviously intended to be hilarious but manages only to be preposterous, Cherry pits the good guys against the bad guys and arranges for the former their predictable triumph.
It is a succession that involves, to mention only a few: a "Rebate Bomber" in Oklahoma who "had planted bombs in water mains all across the country and was demanding a 100% tax rebate on behalf of the entire tax-paying population"; a would-be sculptress who undertakes a campaign to urge that Americans "take the Fifth Amendment on their federal tax forms"; a "renegade trillionaire" reminiscent of Howard Hughes who falls in league with a hired gun reminiscent of G. Gordon Liddy; the assassination of a president, the kidnaping of a pope and the skyjacking of a spaceship; the Queen Mother marching a picket line at No. 10 Downing Street in company with a bubble-brained young publicity-seeker.
If you think all of this sounds entertaining, think again. Beneath the thin veneer of its hysterically high spirits, "In the Wink of an Eye" is monotonous. Although it pretends to satirize '60s rhetorical cliche's, it repeatedly mouths them: "The powers-that-be were always thugs, small-minded thugs, nothing more." In the end, all you need is love:
". . . And furthermore, while she worked, he would be free to work too, and together they would build a peaceable universe; and later, still other earthmen and earthwomen would look around the universe in wonder, amazed that for so long they had been so foolish, so petty, when with only a little thought and care, some attention to other people and concern for the life of the planet itself, they might have avoided thousands of years of war and revolution. Godfathers would realize they were not gods, presidents would be freely elected amateurs, double-dipping colonels would be left high and dry, bureaucracies would be dismantled, and the trains would run on time again."
No kidding. After wading through 300 pages of silliness, this is what we end up with: sappiness. Surely Kelly Cherry can do better. She is at worst a competent writer, at best a graceful one, and her good humor is appealing. But "In the Wink of an Eye" is merely sophomoric, a waste of her time and talent.