Friday, March 21, 2014

It's Brooklyn, What Could be Weird?

Forget about fierce young women, ruthless men and small furry-footed homebodies, in the pages of Jeremy Bushnell's The Weirdness saving the world falls to a hapless aspiring writer from Brooklyn (where hapless young writers abound). Billy Ridgeway, nearing thirty and too distracted by the strange and wonderful world around him to get it together to actually finish that novel, is half in love with an experimental film maker and toiling his days away assembling sandwiches for other Brooklynites. He's such a daydreamer that he can be distracted by a meditation on the miracle that is a banana in a bodega in the winter. How does a guy like this have any possibility of becoming a hero?

Well, one morning, hung over and mad at himself for pissing off his girlfriend, wondering why his roommate hasn't returned from an electronic music conference, Billy awakes to the smell of good coffee brewing and is greeted by the Devil, nattily turned out, sitting in his living room. Yes, that Devil, the guy who makes deals for souls. What could he want with Billy?

It's a classic set-up. What is the Devil offering and will Billy take the bait?

Don't worry, like all the best temptation tales, nothing is straightforward. For a start, get this, the Devil wants Billy to save the world. Which if you stop to think about it makes a fair bit of sense. No world, no people. No people, no one to tempt. The end of the world will mean the end of the Devil's stock in trade. Plus, he's got a really good Powerpoint presentation to make his case.

We're off and running, or at least Billy is, and we go along for the smart and funny ride. Billy's quest for the Devil's Neko (one of the white waving Chinese cats of good luck) leads him into the wilds of Manhattan, Brooklyn and supernatural parts unknown. Along the way he is forced to confront the basic questions that he has avoided to maintain his prolonged adolescence: what does it mean to be in love, be a good friend, a good son, etc. While the journey is filled with bizarre happenings I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that by the end Billy is changed. The most touching evidence of his transformation is in his realization, near the end of the book, that he is no longer discomfited by the use of his full name, William Harrison Ridgeway, in place of the more childlike diminutive Billy.

Comic and satiric bildungsromans are a staple literary form, from Voltaire's Candide to Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker. Nor does it show any sign of going out of style. In the first three months of 2014 I've already read four debut novels built on this classic framework -- this book, Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario, and Adam Sternbergh's Shovel Ready which has a noir twist, and Wayne Gladstone's Notes from the Internet Apocalypse. Despite the shared underpinnings, each author has found ways to make what could be a tired form fresh and entertaining.

While Bushnell's book shares a NYC setting with Sternbergh's and Gladstone's books it is less stylized and more character driven -- Billy's internal life and growth trajectory is front and center. The tone here, optimistic and caring, even when poking fun at the world, is far closer in spirit to Cantor's novel, which, through a fluke of luck and timing, shares a publisher as well overlapping themes of self-knowledge and the importance of human relationships. Of the four novels, The Weirdness is unique in combining satire of the Brooklyn art scene with a jargon and acronym rich supernatural universe.*

Ultimately, The Weirdness is a funny, fast paced, often unpredictable, paranormal joy ride with a very human heart. If you don't need your fiction to follow the rules of naturalism, but still want characters to connect and empathize with, read this book.

*Bushnell's paranormal universe reminded me in several respects of Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf/Bloodlines Trilogy while Duncan's I, Lucifer, in which Lucifer inhabits the body of a despondent failed writer body was the book I immediately thought of when I picked up The Weirdness. Duncan's dark, dark, dark humor makes his books very different from Bushnell's novel, but I would be surprised if Bushnell doesn't have copies of Duncan's work on his shelves.

Thanks to Melville House for providing a copy of the book for review. If I didn't like it, I would have said so.

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