Tag Archives: Mark Leyner

The Tetherballs of Bougainville, Mark Leyner

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.

Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, Mark Leyner

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.

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?