Saturday, August 19, 2006

Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos

Soon to come

Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore

If you come across Practical Demonkeeping, originally published in 1992, don’t be duped by its casual appearance. The 2000 Avon paperback version I received from my sister-in-law looked like it had been produced by an old desktop publishing program with neon colors and a clunky font for the title, and its déclassé demeanor was confirmed by a blanched author’s photo on the flimsy back cover. But inside these pages lurks the heartless soul of an author intent on making the reader laugh his head off.

Practical Demonkeeping has just about everything you could possibly want for a good summer read: sex, drugs, pool playing with an invisible partner, the devouring of well-drawn side characters (by an insatiable, wisecracking demon named Catch), a genie, long-lost lovers, and exploding bags of flour. It’s one of those stories that is immediately envisioned in a reader’s mind, despite the suspension of belief that is necessary (as it would be with any fantastical story).

The tale begins with The Breeze, a surfer-style drug dealer, heading out of Pine Cove, California, with a guy named Billy Winston in a Pinto wagon. As far as The Breeze is concerned, the night was intended for scoring with young co-eds; Billy’s just happy to be with the man he adores (and silently lusts over). The night doesn’t go as either planned: Breeze’s hairline betrays his age to the co-eds who want nothing to do with him and Billy’s intentions become clear enough. The Breeze tries to hitch out of town. When last we see him, however, he’s become the first meal of the night for Catch, who remains invisible until he’s about to feed.

If that doesn’t whet your appetite, then you may not be ready for the main plot: Travis the demonkeeper is looking for a way to send Catch back to hell -- while Catch tries to dispatch his keeper and pick up with some other human he can manipulate -- while Gian Hen Gian, the saltwater-drinking king of the Djinn (a genie, in other words) enlists help from Pine Cove local Augustus Brine to catch the demon. In the mean time, Travis -- who had been a seminarian at the beginning of World War I and who remains a young man while he retains control over the demon -- unexpectedly falls in love with the granddaughter of a woman he’s searching for, who still holds the papal candlesticks in which is hidden the secret incantation to return the demon to hell. Jenny (the granddaughter) is a waitress recently divorced from Robert Masterson, a drunken photographer, who has been staying with The Breeze. Got all that? Even with several characters and subplots (and others I’ve not even mentioned), Moore manages to spin each storyline without tangling them up.

Every one of his characters, no matter how small, is developed with an expert touch -- not too much, but just enough that the reader can imagine so much more. The back story is played out at the right time and with the proper pace that it never feels forced. Indeed, Moore has a deft feel for pacing in what is a quick read, but leaves you feeling you didn't miss a thing. Frankly, it’s hard to believe that this is his first novel, and I can only imagine how much better he’s become.

Is the story convoluted? Of course, but that’s half the fun. The other half is the witty repartee among the citizens of Pine Cove (and, of course, Catch). Practical Demonkeeping feels like a cult film waiting to happen; I could picture some actors and actresses resurrecting their careers by playing certain roles. As for Christopher Moore, I think the best that can be said is what Carl Hiaasen blurbs on the cover of this debut novel: “Christopher Moore is a very sick man, in the very best sense of the word.”

Why this man hasn’t become a house-hold name is beyond me. But I’ll be reading more of his work, and I heartily recommend this book at least to others.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

Continuing a theme of the year, of my first readings of famous writers' books, I finally have a C.S. Lewis book under my belt. Unlike Henry Miller, Ian McEwan, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, Harper Lee, and Tom Robbins, whose spines I broke for the first time this year (well, their books' spines) Lewis’s works are clearly among the types of books I was likely to have read. I’m a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's tales from Middle Earth, so I should have read Lewis as well; they were friends and colleagues and wrote of similar struggles between good and evil. As I did with Miller and Pynchon, however, I started by reading a book the writer is less well known for having written.

While Surprised by Joy is autobiographical, it’s not simply a story about Lewis’s life; rather’s it’s the tale of how he lost his faith, philosophically battled organized religion, and eventually reasoned his way to return to faith. That step was not his last. Once he’d acknowledged the reality of God, then he determined that the true faith was Christianity. Lewis takes pains to make sure his terms are understood. He distinguishes between “joy” and “pleasure”; joy has only one characteristic: that the person who has experienced it wants to experience it again. He also notes often that this has nothing to do with erotic joy.

Joy didn’t kill faith for him -- it took a sense of there being more to the universe than what he had already experienced to weaken his belief. “It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body, it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts,” he writes.

Lewis describes the various schools he attended during his life -- some the sites of harrowing experiences that, sadly, come across as pretty typical in the English public school system. While that’s important to allow the reader to get an understanding of who the author is, the book is really about the author’s conversation and search for an understanding of who is that is (if I’m allowed to conjugate that verb in this context.) In other words, God.

Ultimately, it was his time in Oxford, after fighting in World War I, when Lewis found his intellectual construct of his atheism start to crumble. Though the syntax with which Lewis writes can seem a bit stiff at times, he’s understandable; he takes pains to write with precision, but to a twenty-first century reader, he sometimes seems archaic and flawed. As he takes the reader along a winding path, however, he shares some of his way with phrases, and exhibits beautiful descriptions that perfectly describe moments and features. For example, I enjoyed his description of his family dog, Tim:

We met constantly, passed the time of day, and parted with much esteem to follow our own paths. I think he had one friend of his own species, a neighboring red setter; a very respectable, middle-aged dog. Perhaps a good influence; for poor Tim, though I loved him, was the most undisciplined, unaccomplished, and dissipated-looking creature that ever went on four legs. He never exactly obeyed you; he sometimes agreed with you.

Another passage: “Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.”

And yet again: “In reading Chesterton … I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. … God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

Perhaps, what I enjoyed most about this book was that Lewis took an intellectual approach to discovering God, and in so doing he realizes that he had been struggling all his life to stay away from him. When he decided that, yes, God exists, Lewis's armor melted away -- to him, it seemed to literally happen, and it wasn’t comfortable. Later, as he tried to discern which path was the right one (i.e., which religious doctrine) he “was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.

And since he found God, he also discovered that he had little use of Joy. “It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer.”

Black Spring by Henry Miller

It’s hard to call this work a novel; it’s more a stream of consciousness short story anthology, but written in a semi-autobiographical sense. To be honest, I almost stopped reading this book, and by the end I wasn’t sure that I actually gained much by keeping up with it.

Black Spring was unable to get published in this country for a long time, and the edition I read was from Ireland, though this is not a controversial printing. Nor do I particularly see why this book shouldn’t have been published, except perhaps because it was barely interesting. Sure it describes explicit sexual situations, and it exhibits callous attitudes toward women at spots. Plus, its syntax is sexed up, but this isn’t Penthouse Forum. A few instances of the c-word. Sexual interludes with prostitutes. Personally, I found Henry Miller's common use of sentence fragments and unhelpful disregard for commas far more disturbing.

But all was not lost. One of the vignettes borrowed from Lewis Carroll’s poem Jaberwocky, which is noted for its odd language and sense of silliness during a serious situation. While not as much fun as Carroll’s poem, Miller’s “Jabberwhorl Kronstadt” story made me chuckle at times.

But the writing: metaphor after metaphor, allusion after allusion. Miller’s closing story is entitled “Megalopolitan Maniac,” and it’s as self-absorbed as that title suggests. Indeed, the entire book is an ego trip. Unlike many books – both those few that I’ve reviewed here and among the few dozen I’ve read this year already – this is one that I doubt I’ll ever re-read.