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Memphis Flyer Going, Going, Gone

JULY 6, 1998: 

Gone for Good, By Mark Childress Knopf, 370 pp., $25

When last we heard from comic novelist Mark Childress, it was Crazy in Alabama. This time, it’s crazy in Costa Rica (or more accurately, major crazy and off the coast of Costa Rica), and it goes by Gone for Good. The map of events here – forget what marks the map’s heart for the time being – is wild and winding, so let’s get to it.

In 1972, the 34-year-old singer Newsweek has dubbed “the new super-poet of pop,” Ben “Superman” Willis, climbs into his twin-engine six-seater after a routine, sold-out concert in El Paso, pilots to his next gig and girlfriend in Phoenix, gets stoned, gets lost, refuels on a tiny air-strip in Mexico, trades his pot for something stronger, heads north (turns out south), spots an island, and to the comforting strains of Jimi Hendrix and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” views it as a particularly beautiful place to die a particularly horrible death.

Chapter 2: First-person narrative of Ben Willis Jr., age 11. The scene: The Hollywood Bowl. Six weeks have passed since the disappearance of Superman, and a “memorial service” is featuring the talents of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and, this being one of the darker chapters in pop-music history, Helen Reddy. Superman’s wife Alexa (born Doris Marie French and a former Miss Southwest Louisiana) has taken up with her lost husband’s best friend Jimbo, and Ben Jr. is getting photographed by Andy Warhol and stoned on brownies. Alexa, for reasons of her own but before an audience of grieving fans, announces that Superman was off-stage an asshole. Alexa marries Jimbo, and the next weekend, Alexa divorces Jimbo. Jimbo cleans out Alexa’s bank account. Alexa slashes her wrists and holes up for some fancy seaside therapy. “Your mother has gone off her nut,” diagnoses Granny French before the young Ben, and the two return to Opelousas, Louisiana, where the boy turns to model airplanes, glue, and a series of headaches. (You figure the symbolism.)

In Gone for Good, Mark Childress piles on the outrageous, with dips into action/adventure and magic realism.
Meanwhile, back to the beach: Crushed beneath the fuselage of his plane, Superman is surprised to feel the sun on his face, the taste of blood in his mouth, and the sight of a beautiful woman bending over him. To the reasonable question, “Are you dead?” comes Superman’s reasonable response: a hard-on. Highly unreasonable is the fact that: a) the woman is Marilyn Monroe and b) we are only on page 37 of Gone for Good. What’s an author with an eye and ear for the outrageous to do with his remaining 300-plus? Pile it on. And Childress does, with rather less successful dips into action/adventure, and less successful still, that south-of-the-border specialty: magic realism.

Never mind the magic – the waters that allow Superman to fly, the monkeys that guide him on spy missions, the frogs that send a ballroom of Fortune-500 types into hysterics (or is it the voice of Jerry Vale, the sight of Charo, and a return engagement by Helen Reddy?) – and let’s pick up where Superman next finds himself: encased inside a “concrete diaper,” ministered to by a kindly native, insulted in Spanish by the native’s “blunt-faced” daughter, and extremely confused.

Popping in and out, but hush-hush all-round, are Amelia Earhart (who is trying to get off the island), her transvestite navigator Frank Napier (who is not), and certain and certain-for-dead other notables of “the famously disappeared” variety: Princess Anastasia, D.B. Cooper, Michael Rockefeller, Jimmy Hoffa, the King of Siam, Harry Houdini (age 104), and in a surprise cameo, John F. Kennedy, in a wheelchair, force-fed by Marilyn, and reduced to baby-talk.

Frank owns up and tells Superman these are indeed the people they claim to be, that they simply “needed a place to get away,” and why all the questions? A scientist and pusher of hallucinogenics named Rabbit poo-poos that idea, assures Superman that what he’s stumbled onto is simply a “tropical madhouse, populated by crazy people,” and, surely, you don’t wish to leave? (After eight years, Superman does not.)

But chief among the crazies is El Mago, a recluse with plans to ruin the island’s native inhabitants and habitat by shaving a mountain top and erecting a pyramid-shaped resort for the super-rich. (“An Egyptian pyramid in the New World? That’s absurd!” cries Mike Rockefeller.) But The Magician – think Las Vegas, super-super-rich, and certain-for-dead (you’ll have guessed it anyway) – has more madcap in mind than pyramid-building. And Rockefeller was right to bring up Egypt. Think burial practices and royal retinues.

Think as well of what a lost-and-found, see-through action-hero may finally see through to with the help of his lost-and-found son. Gone for Good is all over the map and hilarious at it. But where father and son meet is where comedy takes a back seat and X marks the spot.

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