Friday, December 07, 2007

Chimerical Crapshoot

Bowl of Cherries by Millard Kaufman. McSweeney's. 326 pages. $22.00.

This debut novel is the work of a real storyteller: a tremendous farce and a tale of true love that charts a crazily inventive route between start and finish, told in an over-the-top prose style that is as intoxicating as it is ornate.

Here's something even crazier: the author is 90 years old, and this maiden voyage proves he not only hasn't lost his wits, but seems to have grown a few new ones.

His name is Millard Kaufman, and he's hardly new to writing. As a screenwriter in the 1950s, he wrote or co-wrote the scripts for Gun Crazy, Raintree County, and the classic modern day noir Western Bad Day at Black Rock, one of his two Oscar nominations. He's also the co-creator of Mr. Magoo.

A few years ago, he set his sights on his latest career, taking solace -- as he told Scott Simon in a recent NPR interview -- in Somerset Maugham's maxim that "There are three rules for writing a novel; unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

"I thought," he told Simon, "if no rules exist, I might as well try it."

Kaufman didn't exactly throw away the rulebook, as the novel -- in which the impossibly bright teenage narrator Judd Breslau eloquently recalls the multiple turns of events that land him on death row in an ass-backwards town in Southern Iraq -- shows an innate sense of how to hook a reader with prose and hold him with suspense.

The town is Coproliabad, which is quite as foul as it sounds, as everything in town is literally made of crap, "well salted with sand, an additive of shale, and, most important, an agglutinate, marvelous but unidentifiable, to solidify it in a state as costive as concrete."

Costive, you ask? Besides having a meticulous sense of history, acute skills of observation, and a typically adolescent streak of out-of control lust -- Kaufman is one nonagenarian who can really get his freak on -- Judd is a veritable master of antiquities when it comes to words, peppering his account with jewels like fubsy, sostenuto, netsuke, symbiont, raddled, bota, cestus, talus, paralipsis, and gracile. He also seems to have come up with lively definitions for other rarities already in existence, like "gedankening," which apparently means fresh thinking on imponderable problems, and "ganching," the form of execution that awaits Judd, where the hapless prisoner is flung from the roof onto a group of razor-sharp bamboo stakes.

As Judd recalls it, his troubles begin after dropping out of Yale at the age of fourteen, when he finds himself employed as a research assistant to a self-styled Egyptologist named Philip Chatterton, distant relative of the suicidal English poet Thomas Chatterton and father of the stunning Valerie. Judd falls quickly in love, but the path to Val's heart is a tortuous one. After briefly losing her to another, Judd heads off to work on a Colorado ranch where he loses his virginity to the comely cowgirl Dawnette White, "a creature who somehow combined the angel essence of Rima the Bird Girl with the tramp proclivity of Sadie Thompson." From there it's on to New York, where he reconnects with Val, as both find themselves employed by a shady porn outfit known as Climax Productions, which by a turn of events way too hectic to recount leads to the wilderness of Coproliabad.

Untouched by the war raging in the North, this cradle of defecation is ripe for corporate plunder, so long as someone can find the secret ingredient that literally keeps the town's shit together. As Coproliabad is dragged kicking and screaming into capitalism and the nuclear age, Judd finds himself thrown in jail, hoping not to give in to despair as he tries gedankening himself into freedom.

This is one of those literary performances where the teller is perfectly matched with the tale; a fantastic journey where you find yourself looking forward to every detour.

Bowl of Cherries is a trip and a half.

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