Book Report

I’m a serial enthusiast, and I’m not talking about Honey Bunches of Oats.

As I mentioned in a previous post about my lifelong connection with the music of Kate Bush, the most recent object of my literary affection is Adam Levin. Levin is the latest entry in my list of Authors I Must Read Everything By. I start with one piece and then find myself devoted to reading everything I can get my hands on. Like so many people, I began with Kurt Vonnegut in high school, moved on to John Gardner in college, then later fell in to the worlds of Gene Wolfe.

I resubscribed to the New Yorker briefly this year—only to cancel yet again when the magazines started piling up on my coffee table, amplifying my ever-present shame at the TV-over-reading life choices I make. Adam’s story “Kid Positive” in the February 24 issue made a lasting impression. His immediately accessible diction combined with his twisted humor and memorable voice made that story un-put-downable, and I sought more of his writing.

I read Levin’s first novel first, The Instructions, which was published 10 years ago. As soon as I finished The Instructions, I started on Bubble Gum, Levin’s latest novel, which was released this year. They say the print editions of these two books total almost 2000 pages, but I had no sense of their bulk as I immersed myself in the Kindle editions. I’d spend a few hours every Saturday enjoying the story of Gurion Maccabee, a ten-year-old natural leader who just may be the Messiah, followed by the memoir of Belt Magnet, a psychotic thirty-eight-year-old who has always conversed with inanimate objects, and sometimes puts them out of their misery.

As Gurion’s mentor Rabbi Salt puts it, in a letter to his new principal:

. . . just imagine what he, five years later, can do for other children. I tell you he makes them better. Not merely smarter—though he certainly does that—but more decent. Kinder. More reflective. Of our children, he makes mensches. This is not a boy you lock away in a room. This is a boy to whom you introduce everyone. . . .

And here’s a bit from Belt’s About the Author blurb:

I’m not a disease, but a human being. If I’d prefaced this memoir with anything resembling, “My name is Belt Magnet, and sometimes I’m psychotic—at least that’s what they say,” then, even had the rest of the text remained the same, you would have spent the previous pages reading not about a recently young American writer and onetime semi-intimate of Jonny “Jonboat” Pellmore-Jason on a quest for cigarette money in 2013, but rather about a disturbed man. You wouldn’t have been able to help but to do so.

Gurion is a hero who beats up other kids, who wields his verbal acuity like a switchblade, who supplies actual near-deadly weapons to his followers, and who inspires a calamitous uprising at his school. Belt is a writer who murders swingsets (because they asked him to); learns to live in the shadow of Jonboat, the world’s most famous billionaire astronaut fighter pilot; and cares for his only friend, an adorable “flesh-and-bones” robot named Blank.

Both novels feature narration by their heroes, and we quickly learn how to decode Gurion’s and Belt’s unique vocabularies. A brief sampling:

  • snat = your reservoir of personal esteem
  • trickle = what happens to your snat when you lose face
  • caulk = what you do when you try to save face, which only makes you lose more snat
  • desormiate = be a perv to, like gym teacher Desormie
  • pennygun = the weapon you make from a 2-liter bottle of soda and a balloon
  • “Shut your piehole, cakeface” = an immortal catchphrase
  • Curio = an adorable pet you keep in your sleeve who may or may not be a robot
  • spidge = a powerful drug made from the spines of Curios
  • inans = inanimate objects, some of whom may talk to you, if you’re Belt
  • gate = the portal in your head that lets you talk to inans, if your gate is open
  • Quills = the cigarette brand that Belt smokes sixty to eighty of per day

Some have compared Levin’s writing to that of David Foster Wallace, and I can see the similarities. Yes, like Wallace, he creates voices that are bold and unlike anything you’ve read before, and yes, he devotes considerable energy to describing details that many other writers would gloss over. He’s a master of syntax, penning jaw-dropping sentences and unafraid to coin a new possessive pronoun: “thats,” with no apostrophe, to stand in for “whose” when the possessor is a thing and not a person. But I found myself more deeply involved in the emotional lives of Levin’s characters, and didn’t sense Wallace’s occasional performance for performance’s sake.

These two Adam Levin novels aren’t for everybody, but if you’re game for some spidge and your gate is open, quit caulking your snat and try it, cakeface.

Remember libraries? This is the Long Room, at Trinity College in Dublin. Photo by me.