Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Butt

The years pass: 2001...2002...2009. Only yesterday I was reading Will Self’s How the Dead Live, a bizarre novel in which the protagonist, Lily Bloom, dies of cancer, moves after death to a dead neighborhood in North London, and attends twelve-step Personally Dead meetings. I seem to remember her walking out for a daily Milky Way. Very funny, very weird, and not a vampire novel. Not sure what it was about.

Self is witty, wicked, and a very prolific satirist.

It was the Driver who discovered Self’s latest novel, The Butt, at the library.

“Isn’t he one of your writers?”

He knows it. The Driver chauffeured me 100 miles or two (no distance at all in the midwest) to a reading in 2001. The reading, alas, was canceled. Afterwards we always called before we left, but honestly we have gone to fewer readings.

The Butt is an extremely funny send-up of extreme non-smoking laws, litigation, and revenge. The history of the reality is weird enough: Self's light satire reflects what is actually happening in the U.S. Smoking lounges once took care of the smoking problem. Then in the late '80s the lounges were closed and in the next two decades the ban became increasingly punitive. Certain parts of the outside are now sacrosanct, as I understand. The coatless smokers in wintertime can't just go outdoors and light up. Only certain spaces are legal. I'm not a smoker and I love non-smoking hotel rooms but the new laws are extreme. Not my battle, though.

Tom Brodzinski, on vacation with his wife, teenage daughter, and squirrelly sons in an unnamed country dependent on the tourist trade, morosely considers the implications of the country's excessive prohibitions on smoking.

“For the three weeks of the Brodzinskis’ vacation, Tom had found the prohibitions on smoking, in this vast and sun-baked country, particularly intrusive. There were strident signs in - and on - every restaurant, bar and public building, threatening fines and imprisonment not only for smokers themselves but even for those - whether wittingly or not - allowed smoking to take place.”

When Tom decides to give up smoking, he accidentally flips his last cigarette butt from his balcony onto the head of man snoozing on his balcony below. The blister on the old man’s head leads to hospitalization and an insane accusation of assault by the old man’s teenage wife, a member of a tribe that does not believe in accident. Tom is simultaneously “arrested” and “bailed” on the same day once he arranges for huge amounts of money to be transferred from his bank account. His wife flees the country with the children, blaming him for being a patsy.

The situation is entirely crazy - the honorary consul (who hasn’t worked for the state in 10 years) and a rich, aggressive lawyer ridicule and take advantage of him, and the outrageous tribe demands “two good hunting rifles, one compleat set of cooking pots and pans, and $10,000."

Tom's road trip across the country to deliver the goods, undertaken in the company of another felon, who has to pay his penalty in prescription drugs, is hilarious, though I'm only halfway through the book. Apparently there's terrorism and chaos ahead, which didn't please the reviewer in the NYT.

A good novel to read on a hot Saturday.

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