The woman pictured at right is an imperfect, and so perfectly, well, perfect (!) cartoon version of the rival real estate agent vying for the existential attention, weird affection (sort of) and, of course, clients of the unlikely anti-hero you will meet if you are smart enough, brave enough, eager enough to read the short, wildly funny, indeed perversely perfect new novel by Louis B. Jones of Nevada City, California by way of Chicago, UC Irvine and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, where he co-directs the Fiction Program. Unshyly, perhaps drolly titled Innocence--for all kinds of reasons--I'll try to provoke you further by offering that this book is the bastard love child of characters in a Preston Sturges screwball comedy and William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Audacious without trying too hard to be, deeply clever while others are often neither, engaged at every opportunity with words, sentences, patterns, Jones (author of four previous novels including, most recently Radiance) should be read aloud, to children and to dying people, of which we are all both of course, simultaneously.
So, to start over, do you remember reading Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life back in freshman year of college? I hope so. It was for me one of those extremely influential books which I am guessing Jones also read, along with all the other reading he's obviously done since, especially by way of careful research into the tawdry yet titillating worlds of real estate, the ministry, Down syndrome, plastic surgery and neonatal emergency. Irreconcilable list of bizarre unrelated topics? Not as organized, choreographed, narrated by one John Gegenuber (his last name a kind of all-purpose German "opposite" or "adjacent") the ex-minister now working selling houses, and losing sales, and having his first--if he is to believed--sexual love affair after successful reconstructive surgery to repair a cleft palate and to ruin, happily, it seems, so much a life lived in pastoral presentation, absent much in the way of the authentic, carnal, real. Our hero is looking for a job where he can, it seems, genuinely, honestly hate people like the rest of us, not to mention love them, something disallowed or mediated in his former life-occupation as man of the extremely tattered cloth, a costume, an ill-fitting disguise a la Goffman's assessment of societal theater constructed by you and I. Here he reflects on his old life, offered calmly enough (he's quite calm) in the midst of the madcap circumstance (more on that momentarily) of love's initiation:
"I was actually tired of these people, so I told myself. The truth is I feared encountering them.
A petty misanthropy was caused by no defect in them; it was my own defect, my selfish torpor, my superiority, my reclusiveness, but it was, above all, my incomprehension. It was only when I considered them in their absence that I saw them in their true form: as emanations of light, consubstantial with myself, congelation of love, ectoplasm, like me propped up above the soil and gesturing. Face-to-face, our flusteredness returns, and all the panoply of self-defense rears up; if we confront each other accidentally in the frozen-foods section, or on the church steps on Sunday when we say our weekly good-bye - good-bye indeed! - we're all so charismatic, even the most scorned of us...rules over a small but logical universe of his own in which we wiser ones appear in cameo parts as big players."
So, yes, Mr. Gegenuber, now donning, ill-fittingly, his slick realtor's blazer, abandoning his secret online porn viewing for the affections of a younger, much-alive, wiser woman from his post-surgery group who works supervising disabled adults, whose eagerness and immediacy and need puts him into reveries of marriage, children...and they haven't even really dated yet! Such is love, a violent and necessary destroyer of innocence, a banana on which we all hope to slip. This comic and yet deadly-lively serious fall guy reminded me of my writer-director hero Sturges's leading clown-man, the great if too-often overlooked everyman Eddie
Bracken, an innocent for sure, but sly and funny. John Gegenuber's cell phone ring-tone is "Night on Bald Mountain." One of his clients is named Cheese. He chooses to fall in love with a girl suffering some kind of weird comes-and-goes amnesia, which could strike at any time. And will! And which offers the chance for self-diagnosis, naturally.
"For I have a kind of parallel affliction to Thalia's episode of dissociate fugue: it's that I have never had a'gift," or a reason for living. I'm like an anonymous supernumerary in the world. I'm still waiting; that is, waiting for a reason."
Story-wise, there will be an ethical and practical challenge (but not much, as he really doesn't care) to the expectations, already diminished, of his new vocation, and reasons for living a-plenty; a night of consummation, only affirming the delusional--or not--possibility, even likelihood, that nuptials and family are indeed just around the corner. But the steady, quietly philosophical and syntactically charming fireworks of Jones's sentences need, and get in this novel--even more than in previous--a wildly satisfying and wildly improbable and yet perfect contrivance of so-familiar complication and plot to boot. The new couple's romantic wine-drinking picnic weekend is interrupted by the early arrival of, yes, the betrayal of that evil realtor colleague, a Northern California power outage, the intervention of the Svengali-esque plastic surgeon who's himself performed all this transformative un-innocence so perfectly on people's formerly imperfect faces and bodies, and the early arrival of a child to be born to, yup, a girl-woman with Down syndrome, ostensibly to be delivered by our hapless hero and his new girlfriend and/or hypothetical fiance.
"...there is a mysterious tricky false bottom to the treasure chest of human nature: a certain consummate despair can come with the satisfaction of longing. We human beings are profound: we are profound and yet we are devoted to conscious shallowness."
The challenge in flesh and blood and birth to what is possible in a "comic novel" is so bold yet so welcome here as to have caused this giddy reader to have to stop reading altogether, put down this slim, vibrant book and reconsider just how all of this happened. And yet, here's Gegenuber-Jones interrupting himself to observe, reliably, cautiously and so grounding the high-larity and perversity in the reminder about our roles, disguises, performances in a novel of so many masks, some recently altered, presumably to make us "better":
"...a human face is just a social institution we share, a face is a bandage, beauty a social device, and monstrous in that way, as is the policeman's brass shield, the priest's pillorying white collar, the leper's smirk, the hag's scowl, all the dramatis personae - and beauty for a woman in society seems a kind of job of work, over the long haul."
Our man Gegenuber and his can-do beautiful fainting girlfriend, trapped in a mansion with no electricity must perform emergency surgery to save one life, and bring a new life aboard. Funny, scary, too much and not enough. There is so much dangerous beauty in this revelatory journey of moments, and self-revelation galore, from our purposefully and gratifyingly self-aware protagonist. In the midst of it, during the same sincere yet laugh-out-loud existential pratfalls of winning circumstances offered as his test of non-faith, he of course takes time to observe. "This was an interesting question in personality construction: how I was getting through this."
How, indeed. The quality of mercy is not strained, no it is the kind with pulp. It is tested in anesthesia, the images on a porn site, the messy, bloody, breathtaking medical details-poetrcy of live birth. Once again, the clever copy writers at Kirkus Reviews got it right: "A novel that confounds expectations of what will be revealed and concealed." Which, to elaborate, means that the
Confounding novelist, in a good way!
story of a lousy ex-Episcopal priest who becomes a lousy real estate agent is a just plain funny premise to begin with. Yet this novel is not only satire. Strictly satirical writing would only, or mostly, shine a light. This book creates its own energy, makes its own light, illuminating itself as if we are reading through pages that reflect and at the same time. Our hero is lousy, and, lo, he is good. Or so he says!
I could not wait to finish this slim 171-page novel from one of my favorite writers. So I could read it again, immediately, out loud, whole long passages, to friends and family. As it happens, we are all trapped in this frail and enduring human house together, there is a power outage, somebody is going to get born.
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Innocence, Louis B. Jones, Counterpoint, 171 pgs., $ 14.95
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts show Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.