Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Mark Leyner

"The Tetherballs of Bougainville"

By Matthew DeBord

THE TETHERBALLS OF BOUGAINVILLE, by Mark Leyner. Harmony Books, 240 pages, $21.

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Mark Leyner might be this era's most frustrating writer: at times a fevered logophile crossed with a blistering satirist, he often refuses to submit to the mundane rigors of narrative, instead succumbing to the lure of hilarity. That tendency prevents him from getting to a higher level, that of a Nabokov rewired for the millennium. After 1995's Tooth Imprints on a Corndog, Leyner's fans might have been justified in speculating that he was gearing up for the longer, more conventional novel that would distance our reigning literary prankster from the cult persona he established with I Smell Esther Williams (1983) and My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist (1990), then dismantled in his 1992 breakout, Et Tu, Babe.

Leyner's latest novel, unfortunately, isn't that book. Unlike Martin Amis, who shelved some of his trademark comic inventiveness in order to wrestle with the larger saga of exile and events in Money, or Bruce Wagner, a kindred spirit who hit the ground running with Force Majeure, Leyner now reads like a writer in a rut, and he probably knows it. But when Leyner sees trouble, he resorts to what has worked in the past. The result is his most scathing novel to date, a masterpiece of concentrated disgust and madcap ridicule that expresses more than a smidgen of what could be seen as midcareer bitterness over his position in the pantheon of contemporary writers.

To his credit, however, Leyner's rut is distinguished by his indefatigable ability to squash the detritus of high and low culture into quantum packets of pristine wordplay. "We must make due with our memories," he writes in the Preface to Tetherballs, ". . . our videotapes, microcassettes, floppy disks, our photo albums, our evocative souvenirs and bric-a-brac -- all the various and sundry madeleines we use to goad our hippocampi into reverse-scan." Vintage Leyner.

What follows, by way of what can only tenuously be considered a plot, is the story of a 13-year-old named Mark Leyner, who witnesses his father Joel's survival of an execution by lethal injection at a New Jersey prison. Joel is then placed on a free-form version of death row -- called New Jersey State Discretionary Execution (NJSDE) -- under which the state can take him out whenever and with whatever means it wishes.

Mark, meanwhile, is supposed to be submitting the next day a script for an annual competition for the best screenplay by a student at Maplewood Junior High School. After slipping the "Imperiously Voluptuous" female prison warden two notes -- "You wanna get high?" and "Be my sweaty, bosomy lover?" -- he begins to compose the text of this "unwritten" film script, which forms the middle of the book. (Mark's review of another screenplay, titled The Tetherballs of Bougainville, constitutes the book's third part.)

The script details Mark's stop-and-go seduction by the warden: Mark "masturbating to minimalist grids and neo-expressionist palimpsests" of Helen Frankenthaler and Agnes Martin; the "notorious and achingly beautiful CUNNILINGUS SCENE," in which Mark pleasures the warden for three and half hours; and Mark explaining the Bougainvillean Tetherball of the title, a sport played fanatically on Bougainville, the largest of the Solomon Islands, where every child dreams of becoming a tetherball/pop star, like Offramp Tavanipupu, the "Mike Tyson/Leonard Cohen of Melanesia."

Matters get convoluted here, but it's in that review of the unwritten script that Leyner, with his devotion to acid satire, threatens to ruffle the feathers of some of his contemporaries. A devotee of the shaggy-dog joke, in which a Woody Allenesque setup builds to a deadpan fragment of distilled comedy, Leyner pairs young Mark with a "completely hairless, chain-smoking Bonobo chimpanzee" named Polo, who, "[m]elancholic, physically decrepit, squinting through the smoke of a ubiquitous cigarette," is "a sort of simian Dennis Potter." Together, Mark and Polo crank out novels, using anagrams of Bougainvillean tetherball players to devise noms de plume. Gascand-Pupulolo becomes "Douglas Coupland." Emshamo, "A.M. Homes." "Falla'd-Certdevi-Waso provisionally becomes 'Darlesca "Lew" D'Fatvio' before 'David Foster Wallace' is deemed more urbane." L. L.'Herbé-Tetziwuza is briefly "Walter Huzzbeitle" before becoming "Elizabeth Wurtzel." The punchline? "No one wants to believe that Microserfs and Infinite Jest and Prozac Nation and The End of Alice were all written by a Bonobo chimp and a 13-year-old boy smoking weed and drinking forties in their bedroom!"

A hoot, elaborately delivered, but it reminds one of how swiftly Leyner can slide from the Nabokovian thrall of language toward a literary restatement of the celebrated Andy Kaufman bit in which the comedian played the "Mighty Mouse" theme onstage, joining in only for the one-line solo, gradually reducing the audience to hysterics. The overall effect is that of the class clown who sits in the back and mutters "penis" until he's cracked everyone up. Percolating giddiness, yes, but what exactly does the guy have on his mind?

Leyner's recent novels have showcased a sophisticated late-century understanding of the means by which ego is constructed not through experience or investigation but through marketing -- the identity as a mutant catalogue of unwarranted desires, everything from rough sex to stereo equipment. Why he adamantly refuses to pit his greatest invention -- the radical consumer moralist -- against the traditional challenge of all great American writers -- the epic of personal transformation in the light of what Robert Hughes has identified as the "American Vision" -- is one of the great mysteries of the age. The novel needs Leyner, but the novel also needs him to raise the bar a notch.

Matthew DeBord has written for the New Yorker, FEED, and Artforum.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Books: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . The Boston Phoenix . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch