In the canon of Ron Currie’s work, a novel that ends with just a few dozen people killed is a relative pick-me-up. After all, his first book was called “God Is Dead.” His second was about a comet destroying Earth. There really isn’t much left for this darkly witty writer to obliterate.
But he’s still finding clever ways to explore the effects of loss. The narrator of his new novel, “The One-Eyed Man,” has been reduced to a single letter: K., and that Kafkaesque allusion is just the beginning. K. has recently lost his wife to cancer, and the trauma of her death has stripped away his understanding of metaphor, his acceptance of imprecision, his tolerance for deception. He’s doomed to total literalism. When a broken streetlight says, “DON’T WALK,” he stands stock still at the corner. For 12 hours. When the label on a bottle of soap claims that it is “liquid hand wash formulated with cleansing agents,” he’s sickened by the needless verbiage. When a sign at the grocery store says, “Get Excited About Gourds,” he’s thrown into confusion. Looking around at the shelves, he realizes he’s “stumbled in a thicket of yet more riddles.”
Friends think he’s mentally ill or suffering from late-onset autism. One calls him Mr. Roboto. But it’s not that he doesn’t understand what’s happening around him; it’s that he understands all too well. He has lost that essential sloppiness that allows the rest of us to drift untroubled through dead metaphors, misleading statements and absurd exaggerations — the grease that keeps the machinery of modern life spinning along. “I was visited by the hammer-stroke certainty,” he says, “that the culture I counted myself a part of, the culture that had weaned and reared me, had become proudly, willfully, and completely divorced from fact.”
If you’re 14, this self-righteous little insight may strike you as incredibly profound, but most everyone K. interacts with finds him deeply annoying. Nobody wants to explain why he should get excited about gourds or why liquid hand wash can’t just be labeled “soap.” Things turn violent when he stops a man driving a truck to ask him about a bumper sticker that reads: “Whose Next? Don’t Tread on America.” Unsurprisingly, the driver doesn’t appreciate having his politics — or his grammar — questioned, and he promptly gives K. a black eye.
Because this is America, K. gets his own reality TV show in which he travels around asking people irritating questions and getting the crap beat out of him. That may sound crude, but for K.’s producer, the show is something of a step up. His previous reality TV program was the wildly popular “Pimp House,” which ended after a prostitute was tortured to death. K.’s show, called “America, You Stoopid,” offers something else, something vital: A man who’s “demonstrated a constitutional inability to play nice.” K. is entirely “free of artifice.” He gives us “the genuine, the sincere, the pure.”
You can probably imagine how well this goes over. Homophobes and gun freaks aren’t all that eager to have their presumptions questioned on national TV, and neither are radical feminists, Black Panthers and neoliberals — even by someone who’s genuine, sincere and pure. K. incites a Shaolin monk into beating him senseless with a bamboo staff. He has to admit that “repeated public refutation of people’s beliefs” is a good way to get killed. Before long, he needs the protection of Russian bodyguards, but nobody wants to break up the fun before the ratings spike.
In these latter days of “alternative facts,” the idea of someone fearlessly dedicated to total, literal honesty sounds awfully appealing. I only wish I could say that this absurd story feels more subtle in execution than in summary. Alas, the plotting is sketchy, the social satire clunky. K.’s Socratic assault on the illogical, racist and shortsighted beliefs of his fellow citizens raises not a single surprisingly or truly provocative moment. And the apocalyptic gun battle that he eventually triggers feels fake and without consequence, a particularly odd weakness in a novel whose hero claims, “I just need things to be true.”
More than 15 years ago, Nick Hornby wrote a similar thought-experiment novel called “How To Be Good ” about a man who suddenly dedicates his life to being good in every way, all the time. He’s just as irritating as K., but the pathos of Hornby’s story isn’t so attenuated by limp antics.
We catch glimpses of the real soul in “The One-Eyed Man” during flashbacks that show K. tending to his dying wife. Her diagnosis interrupted the dissolution of their marriage, forcing them back together until she died. Currie handles that emotionally complex and unspeakably sad situation with such tender solicitude. He understands “the torment of consciousness.” He knows what surprising havoc the persistence of grief can wreak on the heart. He doesn’t need a gimmicky plot premise; human life is strange and existential enough.
Ron Charles is the host of The Totally Hip Video Book Review.
By Ron Currie
Viking. 336 pp. $26