By David Gilbert
Bloomsbury. 373 pp. $24.95
Billy Schine, a disaffected Harvard graduate who does temp work in New York City, has had his troubles "shining" lately. He's had trouble finding himself and is certainly clueless about his girlfriend, Sally Hu (Who?). He owes thousands of dollars in student loans, and those loans have been turned over to a vindictive bill collector. (I'm not sure this actually happens with student loans, but the author is trying to get a novel going here.) Billy decides to get out of town. He signs up for a medical experiment at a huge pharmaceutical firm in Upstate New York, dumps his girl, gets on a bus and is on to new adventures. The firm is testing a new anti-psychotic, and Billy and his bus mates are supposed to function as "normals," but, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. These eight or nine people come from the dregs of society and are vastly unpleasant in vastly unoriginal ways. This is partly because, as the author suggests again and again, they live in an utterly debased culture that has been irrevocably contaminated by the utterly debased mass media. (Not the most original idea, but there it is.)
Even as Billy gets on the bus, the tabloids are abuzz with another crackbrained story: Someone has claimed to have found an image of the Shroud of Turin in the MRI of some poor wretch's brain tumor. The credulous faithful have already gone clamoring to the victim in search of miraculous cures.
But Billy has other concerns. When he gets to the pharmaceutical center, he eats. Then he masturbates. Then sleeps. Then wakes up to pee. His two roommates -- a seedy actor who will wet his pants in public, and another poor fellow who will refuse to shower for the three-week duration of the experiment -- are intellectually far beneath Billy. The only person around worth paying attention to is Gretchen, who is, oddly enough, the only woman in the group. The new "normals" have joined many other unfortunates who are already here. They are fed three meals a day (repulsive cafeteria items like "spongy" meat loaf) and while away their time watching bad television. Just like real life?
Billy has no recourse but to ponder his past. He is what he is because his parents didn't love him enough; they cared only about each other. Because one was Catholic and the other Jewish, they were forced to run away from their homes to get married, thus depriving their son of cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents. (But this taboo against Catholic-Jewish mixed marriage seems about as iffy as a private collection agency threatening to use strong-arm tactics to collect on student loans. Billy's parents are alone because the author wants them to be.) Billy's mom has Alzheimer's now, and his dad has been pestering him to come home and preside over their dual suicides.
Meanwhile, the experiment seems to be taking its toll. One person after another succumbs to vomiting, heavy sweating, problem dandruff, nightmares. Soon a doctor approaches Billy and asks him whether he'd like to participate in a real experiment, something where the doctors get to kill him off and then see whether they can bring him back to life. You can imagine his answer. He's definitely not going to say, "Are you crazy? I'm a Harvard graduate with my whole life ahead of me! Besides, life is too beautiful to mess around with!"
The author here is in the classic position of the man with Gorgonzola in his mustache who thinks the whole world stinks. He devotes pages to the Jerry Lewis telethon to prove it. But this is not, in itself, an original position. Before 1920 T.S. Eliot had conjured the poor soul who "clasped the yellow soles of feet / in the palms of both soiled hands," and a decade and a half later, Nathanael West thought up a park that could be watered only by tears: "Flowers would then spring up, flowers which smelled of feet."
Somewhere toward the end of "The Normals," when there is a prospect of extra money coming in, a character who has lately arrived on the scene thinks of buying a gift for his wife -- a gold chain for her "nasty neck." The author's disgust for everything human extends even to characters who don't even get a walk-on in his pages. He's as repelled by our existence as a 9-year-old girl who's just heard about French kissing.
That's not to say there might not be a market for this book. Disaffected males ages 14 to 34 might find their horrors and distresses mirrored here. People who seethe with hatred and self-hatred need validation, too, of course. But I would just like to say to the author: There's more to life than Jerry Lewis, tabloid journalism, uncontrolled urination and vomit.