Vintage, 1997, 240 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 0-679-76349-X
I initially thought about writing this review Mark Leyner-style, filled with madcap concepts, sophisticated language, memorable epigrams and a variety of formats. But, hey, I’m no Mark Leyner and that’s why he’s the one selling books by the thousands and I’m the one writing these review for an obscure web site that no one reads.
I’m not saying that his style is inimitable; I’m just saying that you’ll end up crazy trying to do so. I’m trying to say that my brain will melt down before producing something every as remotely amusing as his stuff. Heck, I’m saying that if ever Leyner tracked me down as a pathetic imitator, he’d be quite capable of booting my pathetic butt single-footedly. And that would be humiliating.
So allow me to be blandly conventional and try a traditional review. But not too much of a traditional review, otherwise it still won’t make sense and I’ll have wasted thirty minutes of my time.
Look, even a plot resume won’t make sense: Our thirteen-year-old protagonist (Mark Leyner, in what’s presumably a non-autobiographical role but we can’t be sure) is bothered by the fact that he’s got to miss school in order to attend his father’s execution. He tries to pass time by writing a screenplay (which must be delivered the next day, given that it’s already won a prize) and hitting on the prison warden. Alas, the execution goes wrong, his father is put on New Jersey State Discretionary Execution (NJSDE) protocol, the warden responds to his advances and he still hasn’t come up with a title for his screenplay. I mean, who’d consider this an actual plot?
Plus, what about the form? The Tetherballs of Bougainville is made up of narration, a brochure, newspaper articles, biographical sketches, a complete screenplay and a really long movie review. This scattershot approach to writing shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone who’s read other material by Leyner, from the gloriously fluid form of Et Tu, Babe? to the loggorheatic wordblender of I Smell Esther Williams. But Leyner has learned a lot since his early days, and one of the most surprising things about The Tetherballs of Bougainville is how well it flows.
Indeed, it flows at such a compelling pace that you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself whooping and barking through the whole book in a single sitting. It’s not a recommended way to read the book (you may find your landing back in the real world to be jarring), but it can be done with a disconcerting ease.
Reviewers beware; it’s nearly impossible to review the book without re-reading lengthy portions of it when looking for specific details. It’s inevitable, so just accept it.
And it’s a book worth re-reading; the weirdness and density of the humor is such that you’re bound to miss some on the first pass (or blow a mental fuse and have to stop). Highlights include a droll NJSDE brochure, the origin of most modern literature, the description of a three-hour oral sex scene, the artwork used by the young Leyner for auto-gratification and a small SkriptMentor software review. I’m not making any of those up; Leyner is.
The result, as you may guess, is not only a memorably weird book, but also Leyner’s second-best book. (Hey, I loved Et tu, Babe?) Approachable but uncompromisingly weird, The Tetherballs of Bougainville is exactly the type of book you want to share with everyone around, not only to make them read something great, but most amusingly to see the reactions of those who just won’t get it.