Ron Charles reviews ‘Busy Monsters,’ by William Giraldi
By Ron Charles,
“Busy Monsters” may be the best literary present you could bring to a brainy guy’s bachelor party. It boasts lots of gonzo adventure, wacky sex and an endorsement by Harold Bloom that’s so pompous I can’t tell if it’s part of the joke. No matter: William Giraldi’s cocky first novel is a romance for real men — real nerdy men willing to fight for a woman’s heart. Here’s a book to help you celebrate “the stimulating incipience of romance, the excitement of possibility, of being rescued from the abscess of lonesomeness and having someone to share your hydrogen with.” Got that?
And who can resist an opening line like this? “Stunned by love and some would say stupid from too much sex, I decided I had to drive down South to kill a man.” So begins the testimony of Charles Homar, a “memoirist of mediocre fame.” But he’s being too modest. A whirling dervish of classical and pop allusions, Charles thinks of himself as a reincarnated Templar Knight, and he chronicles his bizarro life in the pages of the New Nation Weekly, which sounds something like the New Yorker: “political assessments, persnickety film reviews, poems as space filler, fiction by the same six people, some fine cartoons, and, of course, the fanatical personal pieces penned by me.” Everywhere Charles goes — and he goes some extremely remote places — people recognize him and beg him not to mention them in his next article. No dice.
The 10 freaky chapters that make up “Busy Monsters” describe Charles’s efforts to win back his errant fiancee, the gorgeous Gillian — “as if the word gustatory had grown legs and got a dress.” She’s vanished just weeks before their wedding. It turns out she never loved him as much as she loved the giant squid. Snooping around her abandoned computer, Charles discovers that she’s run off with a marine biologist on a three-month voyage to capture one of those mysterious deep-sea creatures alive. Driven crazy by the thought of “Gillian in the multiple arms of another organism,” Charles pledges to win her back with haywire schemes involving guns, explosives, UFOs and ghosts.
“I was three parts impulse and one part woebegone,” he says, and the “Homaric” tale that follows bears that out in a million little pieces of satire about fraudulent memoirs. Guided by an old friend who’s a Navy SEAL, Charles canvasses the country trying to learn what it’ll take to get Gillian back, seeking the conflicting advice of everyone from an oversexed Italian bodybuilder to “a Filipino leprechaun.”
Be more sensitive!
Fight for her!
Everybody’s got an opinion for this lovelorn hero wandering through the wilderness of America’s monstrous imagination.
Although the pacing is erratic and there are dull stretches, some of these busy antics are awfully funny, particularly his scheme to impress Gillian by capturing Big Foot with the help of a crazy hunter-scholar named Romp, whose card claims, “I Bring It Back Dead.” As they tramp through the Pacific Northwest, Romp prods Charles to stop being such a wuss: “You’ve been so brain-scrubbed by ironic feminists at them liberal universities,” he tells him over the campfire, “now you think it’s wrong to be a man.”
I suspect Giraldi’s dexterity with antique sexual and racial stereotypes won’t win him many friends among those feminists unless they’re very ironic, indeed. We hear a lot about Romp’s extraordinary African American endowment. And during another adventure, Charles consults with an astronomer married to a “chocolate companion,” whose lovemaking is like “rumba or boogaloo.” That meeting falls apart when he watches a black lesbian “clobber the gal Negress-style, as they do in the ghet-tos of Detroit or Harlem.” We’re supposed to be laughing at him, right? But don’t worry, Charles is the first to object: “We are Democrats from Connecticut and I will not have you speak that way,” he says in righteous political correctitude. “We believe in suffrage, pro-choice, and penicillin, and you, my friend, are a powerful, dignified woman.”
Hijinks keep spiking through this screwball narrative, but what really keeps pumping it alive is that impossibly odd and self-conscious voice, a mixture of 19th-century gentility and modern hipster. Meeting Gillian for the first time, “I proffered her my hand, a-tremble,” he says. “I bowed here like a squire or some-such. Someone who owns property, fights criminals, admires estrogen.”
As his bitter father complains, “Who talks like that?” Ignatius J. Reilly in love? It’s irresistibly strange. “I’ve been told my sentences salsa,” Charles boasts, but he frequently finds himself defending his memoirs against accusations that he lacks “Jamesian interiority and the plotting proficiency of Wilkie Collins.” Another reader complains, “Most of the events in your memoirs occur outside the scope of normal human possibility. . . . I also think your people all speak alike.”
True, I’m afraid. But Giraldi knows all that and has used this young lover’s manic, incongruous voice to produce one of the weirdest comic novels of the year. And he has a delicate sweetness that shows through at just the right moments in what is, after all, a very old, romantic story: “Mind always,” Charles tells us, “that Adam wasn’t a schlep fruitily duped by Eve. He turned his back on God because he knew that a paradise without her was no paradise at all.” If that kind of devotion can’t win your girl back from the many arms of a squid, let her go.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
BUSY MONSTERS By William Giraldi Norton. 282 pp. $24.95