From front cover to back, the total “package” of George Garrett’s new novel, Poison Pen, is a shuck and a con. No fictional work in recent memory is so elaborate a satire, and a reader would have to go back to the 18th-century Augustans to find its equal. To begin with, the jacket’s slick black stock and white lettering recall the cover of William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Readers may make what they can of that before turning to the blurbs on the jacket’s back, endorsements by such worthies as the Bash Brothers (Dick and Bob), the pornographer Henry Sutton (who invokes comparisons with Lucilius, Persius, Juvenal, Galba, and Gaius Carbo), somebody named Sean Siobhan, and somebody else named Murray Westinghouse, who drags in Wittgenstein and Chung Tzu (“How delightful to be able to talk with a man who has forgotten the words!”). Even the New York Times seems to have gotten into the act: Poison Pen was recently reviewed there by one “Harvey Pekar,” the author of a series of adult comic books.
But we haven’t yet cracked the spine of the novel, there to discover that even the ungrammatical liner notes are a send-up of language fallen on evil days, and the photo of author Garrett in mortarboard and academic robe, leaning on a poster of Christie Brinkley, seems to be making a mockery of the fact that Princeton University finally awarded him the Ph.D. in 1985. Inside, the frontispiece drawing by Jonathan Bumas is of Garrett in Type A loincloth, posing as St. Jerome or Androcles or Daniel perhaps, since there’s a lion with him. Still other illustrations dispersed through the text purport to depict Garrett’s antihero, John Towne, in such acts as contemplating the bust of Al Capone. OK so far, except that Towne looks suspiciously like the bright young novelist Madison Smartt Bell, and aren’t all these illustrations rip-offs of Art History 101?
Nothing in Garrett’s previous oeuvre prepares us for the hellzapoppin’ of Poison Pen. Neither his two highly regarded historical novels, Death of the Fox and The Succession, which established him as an authority on Elizabethan England, nor his numerous collections of poetry and short stories, nor his essays on everything from the New South to WASP Jokes prefigure this epistolary grab bag of memos, transcriptions from tapes, letters to Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, Cheryl Tiegs, Mrs. DeLorean, Ted Kennedy, Christie Brinkley, Brooke Shields, and other luminaries. Then there are the authorial instrusions, lists, denials from the publisher and from the author himself, you name it. In its form. Poison Pen takes potshots at the new “metafiction” of writers like John Barth and Robert Coover, and is as zany as Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.
Briefly, it goes like this: The academic picaro John Towne, a character in George Garrett’s unpublished novel Life with Kim Novak is Hell, has escaped and is writing the letters and other unclassifiable stuff mentioned above. Towne is also the black preacher Radio P. King, hiding out in Britain, and Dr. Wisdom, the author of a porno magazine’s advice column. Towne’s notes are being edited by another Garrett character, Lee Holmes, a ne’er-do-well academic who hopes to get tenure by making sense of Towne’s unpublished novel manuscript. Realms of Gold, whose protagonist is R.C. Alger, a descendant of Horatio Alger who is also writing a novel to be called America, the Beautiful?: From Pioneers to Pansies. Are you with me, reader?
Of course, there’s no reason to begin Poison Pen with the dedication to Joan Rivers or to enter the publisher’s one-liner contest and win $25.00 by best completing “Joan Rivers? Her memory is so bad that . . . ” as advertised on the dedication page. You can dip in and out of this novel as if it’s a pub crawl and come out just as groggy as if you’d gone start to finish. Or try reading it backwards. This free-for-all has something to offend every sensibility and reminds me of those Russian dolls that open to reveal smaller dolls that open to reveal . . . Except that here you’re never sure who or what will come crawling out next. You may enjoy Garrett’s dossier, published in full in a 40-page letter to Christie Brinkley, for instance. Or maybe Speedy Gonzalez, who writes to LBJ for a $50 loan while explaining that his father voted for Johnson many times in every election. Or T.J. Payne, a John Towne nom de plume who corresponds about his sexual hang-ups and other matters with Dr. Timothy Leary:
So, if you want to hustle a lot of crazy drugs to dumb pimply kids that don’t know any better and couldn’t care less, as well as screwed up grownups who would otherwise just be moping around with sad and unhappy expressions on their faces, why I say that is your business. And if you want to make a show of it with robes and gongs and funny-sounding music and nutty movies and a lot of double-talk, that’s all right with me, too. If anybody complains, you can always cite historical precedent. Remind the s.o.b.’s of the role played by the Medicine Show in the days of the American frontier.
Quite often Towne’s letters contain threats, both veiled and overt, against the “celebrities” they are addressed to, and it is here that the point of Garrett’s lance touches the truth. While we are wondering why we are laughing at the egregious bad taste of many of these missives, we are also realizing that the rampant hype of our time, driven by the wheels of the Media, has created a situation in which reality and illusion are inseparable. Politicians, actresses, “serious” practitioners of the arts, and pop philosophers are all packaged for public consumption in the same way; they are indistinguishable, equally believable or unbelievable, and “what we still innocently call publicity is all the truth that we have left.” Out of frustration and despair, Garrett hints, may come the murders of such idealized figures, and recent assassination attempts on our Presidents, successful and unsuccessful, may be merely the tip of the trend. Those who concur in their own canonizations may indeed Live Now and Pay Later.
Even such a backwater of neglect as the world of contemporary poetry, where little is to be gained in any event, has entered the Age of Hype, if reproductions of glossy author photos in literary magazines and spurious claims by certain poets to having once been professional athletes are any indication. Among my favorite insertions in Poison Pen are two long lists with helpful information like “Anthony Hecht is the Adolph Menjou of American Poetry,” and “Dave Smith is the Robert Penn Dickey of American Poetry.” But who is the Merv Griffin? Who is the Dr. Joyce Brothers?
[Poison Pen: or, Live Now and Pay Later, by George Garrett; Winston-Salem, NC: Stuart Wright Publishers (distributed by Small Press Distributors, 1814 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, CA) $20.00]