Harmony, 1995, 216 pages, C$26.50 tpb, ISBN 0-517-59384-X
When reading anything by Mark Leyner, the tagline from the HIGHLANDER film series come to mind: There can only be one. You might try to find similar authors, but even a carefully-blended mix of Thompson, Adams and Stephenson won’t even come close to the pure undiluted Leyner. His mixture of wide-ranging knowledge, go-for-broke recklessness and carefully-honed absurdity easily places him in a special position in modern humor writing.
Though as of this writing I haven’t yet been able to manage acquiring a copy of Leyner’s breakthrough book My Cousin, my Gastroenterologist, I was first hooked on his follow-up novel, Et Tu, Babe? a hilarious portrait of the writer-as-megalomaniac. Reading this book after so many intensely boring genre novels was like discovering MTV after a decade of Masterpiece Theater. Mainlining with pure caffeine. Adding nitrous oxyde to your morning commute.
Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog is Leyner’s third book (well, fourth if you include I Smell Esther Williams, about which later.) and while it is in a few ways a let-down after Et Tu, Babe, there’s nothing wrong with an extra dose of pure Leyner.
Part of the letdown is inevitable, going from the unified (if disjoint) narrative of Et Tu, Babe? to the straight-ahead collection of plays, short stories and gonzo journalism in this follow-up. It’s not that Leyner is best at novels (his longer pieces are really excuses to go from one hilarious vignette to another), but shorter pieces can’t depend on sustained jokes and long build-ups. Blah, whatever; there are still more jokes per square page here than anywhere else.
The second issue here is that Leyner seemed to have grown up a little. Either that or I’ve become used to his style. Nah. If you take a look at Leyner’s first book, a 1983 collection of pieces entitled I Smell Esther Williams, you’ll find an unrecognizable -and nearly unreadable- Leyner. While each sentence has a kernel of comic effect, they don’t seem to relate to each other in any fashion, and the result is a hyperspeed mish-mash of quasi-epigrams that’s just impossible to read in any fashion. Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog serves to show how much Leyner’s been working on his craft. There are very few incoherent passages (and those who are pass quickly) and Leyner shows that he’s more than able to sustain our interest for longer pieces (the play “Young Bergdorf Goodman Brown” is 80 pages long, and fun from start to finish)
One amusing note; there appears to be some nonfiction content in Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, if I believe a few interview made by Leyner after the publication of the book. The problem is that they’re not identified, and probably unidentifiable. What I took to be one of the zaniest pieces in the book (“The Good Seed”, about -no kidding- a sperm bank located in the Empire State Building) is in fact a nonfiction piece with some high-octane extrapolation thrown in. Good luck trying to find the rest of the nonfiction, if there’s any more.
If I’ve succeeded in scaring some of you away from Leyner’s stuff, good; Not everyone can handle his books. It’s not enough to acknowledge that Leyner has no compunction about writing with his fantasy date with Princess Di, insert hard-core pornography in his pieces, recommend bringing your kids to practice extreme sports such as drag racing or committing crimes in order to become more attractive to the opposite sex. You’ve got to embrace his weirdness and make it your own. If the idea of loving, exemplary parents driving their kids to murder somehow strikes you as interesting in any way… well, welcome to the club. You’ll love the required reading material.