Et Tu, Babe, Mark Leyner

Harmony, 1992, 168 pages, C$21.50 hc, ISBN 0-517-58335-6

On the reviewing slate today: Funny weird stuff from 1992.

Captain Jack Zodiac begins as Cliff Koussevisky wakes up in the morning. His daughter is still missing, lost in the mall as a disembodied ghostly presence. His son is a space cadet. One of his neighbor battles a carnivorous lawn. Another neighbor has become an invincible superhero. Cliff wants to marry Marsha, but Marsha’s Jewish mother objects, and ever though she’s dead, her ghost can still wreak havoc on an ordinary household. The runaway hyper-inflation has everyone paying millions for engagement rings. The Russians start World War III. The traffic is literal murder. And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s a garbage strike.

Et Tu, Babe‘s premise is most neatly stated on the book’s dust jacket: “In 1990, following the publication of his extraordinary first novel… Mark Leyner was hailed by [numerous magazines] as ‘the cult author of the 1990s.’ Tragically for Leyner, the acclaim and publicity were too much for the young author, irreparably loosening his grip on reality.” The book is a portrait of the author-as-mega-pop-star, presenting a larger-than-life portrait of Mark Leyner, über-macho-icon. He’s got tattoos on his internal organs, holds writing workshops to exterminate potential rivals, performs his own appendicectomy and gets high on a whiff of Abraham Lincoln’s morning breath.

As I said, weird stuff. From 1992.

Captain Jack Zodiac is the first book I’ve read from Kandel, but if it’s any indication, it certainly won’t be the last. It’s preciously rare to find something as perversely funny as a book like this, so consider this review as an exhortation to track down this book. If nothing else, you’ll meet Bob Petruzzo, whose lawn is about to take its revenge for years of torture.

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at first. Multiple threads are introduced, and one begins to wonder if they’re even taking place in the same universe. But as the book advances, things cohere and the nice thing about Captain Jack Zodiac is that it is coherent without having to make sense. When the ending arrives -kind of THE MATRIX as written by Douglas Adams,- it feels as if it’s too soon, that things were just getting started! Progressing steadily from suburban satire to metaphysical trip, this novel shouldn’t be missed.

Most of the same comments also hold true for Mark Lerner’s Et Tu, Babe, though Leyner’s humour is far more risqué than Michael Kandel. Leyner’s alter-ego thinks of himself as the epitome of maleness and his obsession tends to run into narcissistic bodybuilding quasi-erotica. Digressions in self-performed appendicectomy and visceral tattoos are also prone to annoy certain weak-stomached readers. But otherwise, Et Tu, Babe is a wonderfully megalomaniac work, just sufficiently warped enough to avoid upsetting the inferior reader with the thunder of his greatness.

The style is crunchily macho, with Leyner killing most of the rock-star-eccentricities clichés by one-upping them once more. The variety of styles and approaches to the material (pseudo-interviews, news-segment transcriptions, fiction excerpts, etc…) keeps the humor fresh and unexpected. It’s often a laugh-aloud riot. A common failing of most humor writing is the tendency to run too long after the punchline, but here one fells almost disappointed that Et Tu, Babe doesn’t run even longer. What will it take to bring back Mark Leyner?

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