I think it only right to declare my interest at the outset, for I have known Robert DeMaria for a quarter of a century as a friend and as a colleague at Dowling College. After all these years, I should have learned something from that experience, and just now three pieces of advice come to mind: always accept an offer of homemade lasagna from Professor DeMaria; never raise after he calls during a poker game; and read The Satyr, now that you’ve got a second opportunity.

First published twenty years ago. The Satyr is the fourth of DeMaria’s 14 novels and stands apart from his other works for its sheer playfulness, its experimental nature, and its brevity. This work denies ordinary reality, focusing on the psychology of the individual—or so it seems, if we are to take at face value the claims of the sex maniac who is the narrator.

Without wishing to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t gotten through to the last page, I should discuss “face value” if only to dismiss it later. The narrative purports to be a Gogol-like diary of a madman. Marc McMann, who works as an editor in a publishing house in New York, wants to explain why he must murder his mother, Gertrude. But in explaining his motives he also reveals a satyriasis, a hypertrophy of the imagination, and a bent for philosophy that is compelling if perverse.

Killing your mom ain’t easy and Marc flounders at the task, but he does adopt a brilliant stroke. He decides to murder her as someone else: namelv, as Claude Elmath, whose anagrammatic name requires that his father hail from Stratford and further implies why the book must end as it does. A flow of allusions to Hamlet—and to Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest as well—quotations from the sonnets, and reshufflings of soliloquies, themes, and images, all combine to fortify this narrative and establish even its unreliable narrator as an inspired response to Shakespearean provocation. The power of poetry is transformed into the texture of the novel; the mad narrator acts out our dreams and our nightmares even as he acts out the role of Claude Elmath.

His “act” is literally the novel’s imposture. The themes of acting, of masks and masquerade, of eros vs. thanatos, of the Oedipus complex, of the castrating bitch-mother, of the confusion of hate and love, are paraded and drilled in full development. The monstrosity of misplaced desire, the hysteria of incest, the parody of Freudianism, the narcissistic self-love of the masturbator, the vanity of the seducer, the instability of identity—all these are arrayed in full panoply. Somehow through all the couplings and passionate scheming and moaning of the narrator, there emerges what Raymond Chandler once called “a quality of redemption.” There’s something positively good about the crazy Marc McMann and his struggles with his self and with his mom.

The power even of “Marc McMann” to dominate reality by his utterances, to capture our provisional allegiance through his voice, and to compel belief in his unbelievable diary, is itself a demonstration and a celebration of the magic of narrative, of the potent hocuspocus of writing, and of the reader’s necessary complicity in imaginary creation. If, by a false etymology. The Satyr satirizes the swinging 60’s, it also trumpets the death-defying sway of Shakespeare—and even its own spellbinding strength as a page-turner.

Marc himself says, “I am a very unusual person. I am, for one thing, a kind of literary genius. I dream metaphors. I know the secret meanings of words. I understand the magic of poetry. I feel, at times, that I can open my mouth and allow to issue there from a stream of verbal music.” The proof of the pudding justifies his swagger, though not, of course, in the sense he means. He also says, as he maneuvers to kill his mother, “I used to get up at dawn and read furiously until it was time to go to school.” Behind these words lies the author’s, not the narrator’s, keen awareness of the allegory of composition he has encoded in the frenzied fable of Marc McMann.

Like a poker player peering over his cards and trying to maintain his deadpan expression, Robert DeMaria is nothing if not sly. Though the author once had the narrator’s publishing job, there can be no confusion between them. The preemptive dismissal of Portnoy’s Complaint on page 140 (“You shouldn’t be reading things like that”) is a tricky aversion of just the comparison that suggests itself—one which this novel easily withstands. And I must admit that references here to one Aldo Zappulla, a theatrical supplier, and to a hotel named the Saxon Arms, are the sort of thing that must elicit a knowing smile only from those who have spent rather too much time in Oakdale, New York—the glosses will wind up in a dissertation one day. Nevertheless, I will point out here, at least as far as the second in-joke is concerned, that the legend of Hamlet is derived from Saxo Grammaticus—the Saxon who could write Latin.

Our collaboration with the author ends with the foisting of perhaps the most outrageous “happy ending” in literary history—one that is literally self-effacing. In a consumption devoutly to be wished, the sack of the story is pulled inside-out by an “act” not so much of self-destruction as of auto-deconstruction. And having come thus far in this conspiracy of reading and writing and imagining together, we may be ready to understand just how right it is that the words grammar and glamor are cognates. Perhaps that makes Robert DeMaria an Italo-Americo Grammaticus; or perhaps it goes to show that Shakespeare wasn’t the only one to wave Prospero’s wand.

The point is that in a period of declining artistic resource and of degeneration in the publishing industry, the reappearance of The Satyr is particularly appropriate and welcome. Its affinities with some of the experiments of Poe, James, and Nabokov are self-recommending, and the laughter and wonder it inspires are self-rewarding. And the pleasure of pondering the teasing puns on Marc McMann’s name and other such quibbles is only one of the reasons we like the cards to be dealt down and dirty.

Check to you.


[The Satyr, by Robert DeMaria (Sag Harbor, New York: Second Chance Press) 176 pp., $21.95]