Tetherballs of Bougainville by Mark Leyner (REVIEW)

You can heap praise upon books until you run out of clever adjectives and you’ve used up all the permutations of classic book review phrases you can think of, but the fact remains: when it’s all said and done (and discussed and written about and beat into the ground with a dead horse), there are some books that leave you regretting your decision to read them, and then there are books that, well, don’t. Books that, to put it bluntly, kick ass.

This, I think, fits comfortably in the latter category.

Though I should mention that, in the same way that non-drowsy Dramamine and scrapple and facial tattoos are simply not for some people, this is a book that, quite frankly, is not for some people. This book (ToB) starts off with an execution in New Jersey and proceeds more or less from there with reckless abandon. ML veers off on tangents at an almost imperceptibly-fast rate, writing one moment about a “postmodern sentencing structure” (‘discretionary’ execution where an inmate is released but may be executed at any time [and in any manner], depending on a number of more or less random variables) and the next moment about a locker room painted with bare-breasted Valkyries with laser guns. And I’m not even making that up. The only thing that makes this a ‘novel’ and not a series of loosely intertwined short stories and essays is…

Well, nothing, I guess. But still, it’s billed as a novel, so you’re more or less inclined to read it as such. Part of what makes Leyner’s stuff so brilliantly funny is the fact that it’s simultaneously unbelievably self-assured and fanatically self-deprecating; that it’s both above the reader—prone to spates of almost uninterpretable medical and general technical gibberish—and also below the reader; that it’s dead serious and unnervingly hilarious; that it’s self-referentially painstakingly non-referential. (I don’t even know what half of this means, but rest assured, it’s all true.)

An example might help you get a sense of what I’m talking about. So:

“Let’s not be naive. Kids are going to experiment with drugs and alcohol, vandalism, callous violence, semiautomatic handguns, chemical weapons, and neofascist hate crime—it’s inevitable behavior for adolescents trying to determine what ‘truth’ is in a world torn between the self-replicating apocrypha of the Internet and the info-hegemony of Eisner-Murdoch-Turner.” (p 202-203)

I don’t really know what more I can say. Let’s not mince words. This is a work of superhuman skill. If it were written two centuries earlier (or even one), we’d be teaching it to kids in high school (Assuming, for a moment, that if this were written 2 centuries earlier, most of its brazenly vulgar [yet infinitely comedic] references would be banal enough that they could be taught in HS w/o offending too many people—which I guess begs the question as to whether part of the kick-assedness of this work has to do with just how offensive it manages to be without being too serious.). Anyway, it’s good. It’s amusing, in a way, how a book this witty compels its reviewers to attempt some kind of emulation, albeit vastly inferior, of that dazzle. I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just saying it’s kind of funny, you know?

Here’s another good bit, one I’ll leave you to munch on as you decide whether or not to run out and read this book right now. (It’s your decision, after all.)

“Len Gutman was not only considered technically virtuosic in his craft, he was deemed a visionary genius. In the course of his career, he garnered every significant award bestowed by his colleagues, and was ultimately designated a ‘Living National Treasure’ by the American Signage and Display Association (ASDA). His work is so ubiquitous and prototypical that it smacks of the primordial, as if it’s somehow existed always, independent of human artifice.

Use Other Door—one of the very first signs that Gutman wrote as a young man—became an immediate classic. Gutman went on to write a stunning series of signs that fundamentally redefined our sense of public language, including: Out of Service, Visitors Must Sign In, and Push to Start. Then—in what is considered Gutman’s annus mirabilis—an astonishing burst of creativity in which masterpiece followed masterpiece in astonishing succession: Do Not Enclose or Obstruct Access to Meter, Turn Knob to Right Only, Right Lane Must Turn Right, and the sublime Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning to Work. (That same year, Gutman also wrote We Deliver, Totally Nude, and Void Where Prohibited.)

There’s an austere beauty to much of his work, pared down to its irreducible essence. In a famous television interview with Gutman late in his life, a critic is standing with him in front of a restaurant’s lavatories, admiring what is indisputably Gutman’s most popular, and arguably his finest, sign: Men.

They then move over to the distaff door.

‘You didn’t write Women?’ asks the critic.

‘No, I wish I had,’ Gutman smiles wistfully.” (p 84-85)

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1 Comment

  1. me

     /  March 25, 2004

    this book sucks. actually, it looks kind of good. maybe i’ll consider buying it. but i’m in the middle of Che Guevera’s bio, which is fairly huge, so it might be a while. this website has more to offer than i remember. if you are getting more hits than usual, it may be be thanks to “me.”

    hey, ever heard of the movie “the american astronaut.” saw it the other day. very strange hybrid of sci-fi, rockabilly, and 50s nostalgia/parody.