"You're not going to like this," Hob Broun's unnamed narrator begins. "Call me Ishmael" it's not, but it's a daring beginning for a young author. Honest, too: "Inner Tube," Broun's second novel, contains much that is good and much that is bad, but very little that is pleasant.
The story opens with the evening in Lake Success, N.Y., on which the protagonist's mother, "corroded by the defeat of her acting career," commits suicide by ramming her head into a TV set in the middle of a Bob Hope special. As Broun sees it, her exit is just one of the far-from-random horrors of postwar middle-class life. Mother and son have grown up as ineffectual coconspirators (when he is thrown out of school for planting tranquilizers in the faculty-lounge coffee urn, "my mother came to fetch me, wearing gumboots and a silver fox jacket . . . and whispered, 'Can you get any more of those pills?' ").
The narrator drops out of school in the '60s, goes to work for CBS, then moves to Los Angeles, shedding hopes and connections as he goes. He marries, divorces, drifts and eventually ends up in a high-tech desert installation, editing old videotapes 85 feet underground for purposes he doesn't understand or really care about.
"Inner Tube" is a story of what sociologist Christopher Lasch would call "the minimal self" -- an atomized, fragmented intelligence failing to understand an incomprehensible world. "To put a not very fine point on it, I had my doubts about close contact with other people," the narrator confesses. "Still do."
Indeed, his marriage breaks up not because he and his wife can't communicate, but because they communicate all too well. "Here was a compatibility, awesome in its precision, from which she and I could not turn away. An absence of imagined pearls. What cleaved us to each other and ultimately cleaved us in two were these types of closeness, progressive as a disease. More thankless wisdom, but in time, in desperation, wouldn't we have interwined mortally, choking in unison? Isn't that true?"
Well, maybe yes, maybe no; either way, the reader will be hard put to deny the grim power of Broun's solitary, alienated vision. "Inner Tube" isn't just a portrayal, though: Broun has an explanation of what's gone wrong with our lives and our society, and he's less successful at conveying that.
The villain, it seems, is television:
"For children arrived since Hiroshima, television has provided first contact with the past, our first sense of a world larger than this one. In safe rooms, on the hard, sure glass of a light box, we observed ghosts without fear. Hitler, Dracula, Maid Marian, Red Ryder -- all floated by us on the same low clouds . . . For children arrived since Hiroshima, the lines have been fine. Nothing but clarity would do, while contradictions dropped all around like leaflets urging surrender. Nostalgia was forced upon us. We learned not to learn by example."
Far be it from me to defend the idiot box. But in the end, Broun seems unable to explain his hatred of the medium. Okay, TV did it, whatever it is -- but how? It's not, he explains, by creating fantasy images; in fact, the problem with TV is that it's true: "That predetermined Maple Street existence was very much our own, in all the canned events through which we moved like chess pieces, in the good cheer we displayed so methodically, in the very drabness of our squabbles over report cards, dating etiquette, crunched fenders."
A lot of the time I couldn't really follow what Broun is trying to say; his narrator's demons, personal and social, merge into an incoherent monologue. The story marches relentlessly downward, through the circles of solitude and despair. The narrator moves to the desert. Coyote hunters poison his well. He eats his pet goat (named Rosing, "after the inventor of the cathode-ray receiver") and marches into the hills, presumably to die. His reasons aren't clear, and his story isn't pretty. Ah, well; remember, you were warned.