“Nigger” is the word upon which Bill Kauffman balances and dances his first novel, Every Man a King. It is, to say the very least, a difficult word. It is a word denied to white lips in polite society, and is now heard only coming with any frequency from trash-mouthed blacks.

The saying of the forbidden word on a television show by Kauffman’s central character requires his banishment from Washington and precludes any political future. How easy it is to become a nonperson in the United States.

Every Man a King is satire. In the first third or so of the book the victims belong to the new Conservative Coalition. The hero (like Kauffman) is a populist agrarian conservative with little patience for New York parochials. I do not know what someone who does not share this viewpoint would make of it:

In vain might the curious visitor [to the think tank where the central character works] search for evidence of the Mugwump conservatism of Henry Adams, the gallant localist conservatism of Jefferson Davis, the rumbustious anarchist conservatism of John Dos Passos, or any of a thousand brilliant and singular mutations. The American Foundation, its patrons and clients (including the scurrying ants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) in lockstep, held to a peculiar and astringent doctrine admixing unstinting loyalty to big business with a perfervid enthusiasm for all things military. The resulting alloy they called “conservatism,” and on its behalf they sacrificed forests of paper and covens of smiling senior fellows, all to quench the unquenchable appetite of the Goddess Media.

Having uttered the unmentionable, John Huey returns to his hometown, Batavia, in Upstate New York. He takes up with a woman from the lower orders and we are given to understand that such people are noble in some way. He calls up the memory of his grandfather, who was a member of Huey Long’s Share the Wealth Club (and thus the title of the book). My main problem with the book is I think that populist utopianism can be as offensive as leftist or rightist utopianism, and there are limits to revisionist ideas, in spite of the certain pleasure I had watching Kauffman get a dig in once in a while against Roosevelt and gang.

A conservative reader might nod his or her head, glad that the book is around but knowing in the heart of hearts it will not matter much. And while I’ll nod my head and murmur approval at the slings and arrows Kauffman slugs at the big city and the blurb manufacturers, go ahead and quote me as writing: Every Man a King is a funny, delicious political dash against the well-known suspects.

The Twenty-seventh City, on the other hand, is more a long proposal for a film than an actual novel. Its editor has asserted in an interview that he actually did read it, but he never gets around to saying exactly what made it, in his words, “an impressive and challenging book.” I am sure they can wheel in the dying horse: a literary novel that makes use of the thriller package, this time set in St. Louis and involving the appointment of a woman from India as the police chief. Of course there is sex and some sort of conspiracy. The engine of plot chugs on for pages. If you have read Ludlum, Michener, or any of the other worthies from the best-seller list then you have already read The Twenty-seventh City. The function of this novel is to pass time. Never have so many been in need of this sort of drug, to pass a mental kidney stone. Why don’t they just watch television?

The Emperor of the Air has been garlanded with praise. We all know that the author is studying in Boston to be a doctor. One hopes that he will be a better doctor than his stories predict. I would not seek him out to treat any ailment. He would commit surgery to cure a mosquito bite.

If there is something still called magazine verse, the Emperor of the Air would pass as the equivalent of magazine fiction. Pretension and pretentious are the brackets. You pay your money and you better get inspired. The characters in these stories are always sensitive; their problems are always significant. They always mean something, but their depth goes no deeper than a greeting card. The characters are so illusive, so uplifting that to this reader they are like eating too much baklava: headache, teeth coated, and why did I do this again, when I do know better. Some evidence:

When I thought of this and the woman I was sad. It seemed you could never really know another person. I felt alone in the world, in the way that makes me aware of sound arid temperature, as if I had just left a movie theatre and stepped into an alley where a light rain was falling, and the wind was cool, and, from somewhere, other people’s voices could be heard.


“Don’t just watch,” he said. “See.” I looked. The ice plant was watery-looking and fat and at the edges of my vision I could see the tips of my father’s shoes. I was sixteen years old and waiting for the next thing he would tell me.

Then he thought: What can you do? These are clouds above us, and below us there is ice and the earth. He said, “I give.”

* * *

Despite all science, I think we will never understand the sadness of certain notes.

My hand finds her fingers and grips them, bone and tendon, fragile things.

Sentences like the above provoked the critics: “Startling . . . self-discovery with a voice of compassion . . . energy . . . extraordinarily gifted . . . unexpected flight . . . glowing . . . guilty of brilliance.”

Is there a new hallucinogenic drug moving through the critical world?

I do not want to leave you in this slough of despond, so I will recommend Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. The Village Voice is annoyed because, they think, it is unfair to lesbians. It was reviewed in The New York Times by a thriller writer who was disappointed that it was not a thriller.

Be all that as it may. Geek Love is one of the most exciting and bizarre novels to be published in a long time. Its vision is extreme in the way of Swift and Celine. It has the bite and fury of Parts Three and Four of Gulliver’s Travels, and the verbal energy of the later Celine novels, Nord and Castle to Castle. It sings with a sort of classical epigrammatic authority. The story, mostly narrated by an albino hunchbacked dwarf, is of life midst her family of traveling freaks, Binewski’s Fabulon. Some of the freaks are natural, others are chemically induced. There are Siamese twin sisters who play the piano and do a bit of prostitution on the side. The central character, Artie, who has flippers instead of arms and legs, becomes the focus of a cult whose members offer up their arms, legs, eyes, and sexual organs in homage to him. Artie calls himself an industrial accident.

The cult is described in loving detail and quickly the reader understands that there are implications. Doctor Phyllis, who performs the surgery demanded by the cult members, argues that lobotomy is the ultimate short cut to: P.I.P.—Peace, Isolation, and Purity. Cut once. Cut deep.

Geek Love refuses to pander and refuses to make things easy for the reader, though it is extremely readable. I am glad that many readers will be put off by the subject matter. Truly moral books are for the very few. It is the most spirited and compelling defense of human life in all of its forms that I am aware of Some quotes in partial substantiation of my claim:

It is, I suppose, the common grief of children at having to protect their parents from reality. It is bitter for the young to see what awful innocence adults grow into, that terrible vulnerability that must be sheltered from the rodent mire of childhood.


. . . like many other sophisticated people, she is unduly impressed by anything connected with the mass media . . .

“I was thirty-eight years old,” muses Miss Oly, “before I ever felt the burn of whiskey on my lips. But I knew it right away for what it was.”

“The virgin’s arms,” nods Jimmy. “God’s breath.”


[Every Man a King, by Bill Kauffman (New York: Soho Press) 229 pp., $17.95]

[The Twenty-seventh City, by Jonathan Franzen (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 517 pp., $19.95]

[Emperor of the Air, by Ethan Canin (New York: Harper & Row) 179 pp., $7.95 (paper)]

[Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 348 pp., $18.95]