It may be true that literature encompasses life, all of life, but there are still some topics and themes that do not appear, at least at first glance, to make a rewarding subject for literary endeavor. Nonhuman life forms look pretty risky, as a rule. Snails and worms, the subjects of two recent novels, look particularly unpromising.
But you never can tell. After all, there's "Animal Farm." There's "The Metamorphosis." There's even "Lassie, Come Home." On the other hand, there's that barnyard domestic comedy, "The Book of the Dun Cow," and various heroic-comic-tragic-historical-pastoral-symbolic treatments of rabbits, moles, bears, dogs and seagulls, to make no mention of a veritable phalanx of killer rats, cats, bats, crabs and flies, and let's not even think about Mr. Ed and Francis the Talking Mule!
Still, as with all matters of artistic judgment, the suitability of the subject matter depends, in the end, on the quality of thought, the talent, craftmanship, aims and honor of the artist.
Richard Miller's "Snail" is presented to us as a work of serious intent in comic form. It comes equipped with advance praise from Raymond Mungo, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William S. Burroughs. It is high-priced and handsomely decorated. It is, in fact, neither serious nor comic.
It is adolescent, shallow, devoid of craft, tasteless, scatological unto the point of being disgusting, self-indulgent to the point of embarrassing the reader, silly, self-serving, pretentious, a blot on the notebook of an otherwise honorable and distinguished publisher and an outrageous insult to book buyers invited to spend money on it.
In time, with application, Miller might improve his writing nearly to the level of a precocious high school sophomore. He'll be lucky if the Environmental Protection Agency does not bring suit for the death of trees used to make the paper it is printed on.
Briefly -- the only possible way to consider this book -- it concerns Reich War Minister Commander-in-Chief General Field Marshal Baron Werner Eduard Fritz von Blomberg, buddy of Adolf Hitler. On the first page, he is given the elixir of life by the Wandering Jew (sometimes known as George Baxter), and promptly turns into a handsome, blond, Aryan, 16-year-old version of himself.
To say that he then sets off on various surrealistic adventures suggests more order and purpose than the book in fact possesses. He spends a lot of time with the goddess Athena. He meets the Tooth Fairy. He travels to New Orleans and Timbuktu, searching for the three Pieces of Power. He thinks a lot about snails. He turns into a woman. He turns into a snail. He talks ad nauseum about bodily functions and fluids. Worst of all, we are subjected to all of this in his own -- dare we use so grand a term? -- narrative voice.
"Snail" is a pretentious and public exercise in self-pleasuring. It is the most dishonest sort of book, meant only -- if it is meant in any way at all -- to do nothing more than show off and to be nothing more than outrageous.
Al Sarrantonio's "The Worms," unpromising as it sounds, is another matter entirely. Sarrantonio is a very talented young writer of fantasy and horror fiction, highly regarded for his short stories. One of them, "Pumpkin Head," reprinted a year or so ago in "The Year's Best Horror Stories," is so powerful and finely made that it is likely to outlive its author. "The Worms" is his first novel, and readers who care about horror fiction, especially those who have been watching Sarrantonio, will want to read it.
"The Worms" is set in an apparently quiet New England town where, 300 years ago, a woman named Granny Brind was burned as a witch. A descendant of Granny Brind, Felicity Cramer, brings her fiance' to the town and they are quickly caught up in a series of frightening events growing out of an ancient curse.
Felicity and Paul must battle truly scary wormlike creatures to protect themselves, the town and possibly the world from a terrible doom. Although simple and straightforward, and occasionally tentative in the writing, the book is filled with color, atmosphere, and action. Sarrantonio is a very visual writer, skilled at creating suspense, and "The Worms" is a fine entertainment, unpretentious and fun.
"The Worms" sets out with the decent goal of entertaining. And it does so in the best way, honestly, even if it is about worms. By contrast, Richard Miller's dishonest "Snail" only leaves a bad taste in the mouth.