by Robert Mailer Anderson (Perennial, $12.95) Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600; 7:30 p.m. Fri., Jan. 31
THE DIFFICULTY WITH creating an eccentric, fantastic, fuck-the-rules literary setting is that the invention just can't come off as pass頯r superficial—even though it is, of course, manufactured. There must be rocket ship swiftness in the establishment of detail, suggesting worldliness and depth, and the author needs plenty of confidence in his imagination. (Check anything and everything by Mark Leyner.) Stepping into this created world, the reader needs to feel like he is stepping off a plane in Milwaukee, Madagascar, or Mars. I don't have to know right away where I am, but I have to know for sure that I'm gone. There's no time for messing about to appease the book-club romantics, there's no time for starting off soft. There's no room for normal. (Vintage Tom Robbins, anyone?) That is to say, if you're going to make believe, make me believe. If the edge isn't edgy, don't bother. It's not that an imaginary world can't be created quietly (witness Jonathan Lethem's Girl in Landscape or As She Climbed Across the Table), but there has to be consistency to the quietness, an eerie, fresh, irrefutable human vitality. Bent rules, in fiction as in life, are not nearly as fun as busted ones.
Robert Mailer Anderson's first novel is a cult-fiction-style double take on what happens when an unresolved life is dropped into a small California half-hippie, half-redneck town called Boonville. Benign and strangely lacking in style and savoir faire, it is a novel of half-baked authorial experiments and trying much too hard. The residents of Boonville are given their own language, for instance, and translations pop up occasionally in dialogue and on street signs (a telephone booth is called a Bucky Walter). But this trick is only sporadically used, and it lacks any kind of cultural truthfulness: It's an irritating intrusion, and it's not believable.
Even when they're speaking their backwoods version of English, these characters and their subculture aren't convincing. A character named John Gibson, a thirtysomething, self-effacingly bland hero, is given memories of his dead grandmother that are heavily marked with the scent of vaginal infection—he wakes up in her house and is immediately reminded of the first time he performed oral sex—but along with these impudent characteristics, he's also assigned a bunch of waffley, namby-pamby personal politics, so these bizarre psycho-sexual associations of his came off as completely contrived and totally gratuitous. When we first hear from Gibson's ex-girlfriend, she sputters, "Your grandma was a spent bitch!" but not two minutes later, we learn that this "ballsy" chick (she helps to define this book's "edge") also obsessively rearranges her copies of Glamour and House Beautiful. And, of course, the barrage of crazily named Boonville residents (Billy Chuck, Doc Testicles, Pensive Prairie Sunset) are parodies of themselves—only a handful of characters in Boonville actually "develop"; most just tell dick jokes, plunder eccentrically, and drop grade-school pseudonyms for female body parts.
Boonville's central theme is that none of us is ever ready for anything that happens to us, so we're better off just jumping into any new situation. A nice idea that Anderson's style, or lack thereof, does nothing to support. Gibson is placed in a whirlwind of wacky events that transpire rather rapidly; he's definitely not ready for what comes his way. But these rapid-fire proceedings are like a lunatic shooting his handgun on the street corner—just as aimless, spastic, and purposeless.
And really, all the clues were there right from the very beginning. Boonville starts off with a hunky author shot and a page-and-a-half bio. Your customary publication information follows; then a long disclaimer (Boonville is, after all, the name of a real town, one that Anderson has radically redrawn); a dedication (to the hunky author's family, who, I am assuming, are equally hunky); two pages of acknowledgments; and then two epigraphs—by DeLillo and Faulkner. Now, to be fair, were any of us to secure a book deal, perhaps we, too, would be comprehensive to the point of ridiculousness in dotting our self-indulgent i's and crossing our grateful t's. And hey, I'm a good sport. I can deal with some tedious intro pages, so long as the story catches me quickly from there. Boonville, you might have guessed, didn't.