Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Feliz Nihil

Grim fictional fare for holiday depressives

By Chris Wright

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  What do you get for the person who has everything? It's a question that clatters in every beleaguered shopper's ears this time of year, leading to family breakups, mental breakdowns, and much gnashing of teeth in Sharper Image checkout lines. But the problem might not be as intractable as you think. What do you get for the person who has everything? Why, nothing, of course.

But what about the person who believes in nothing? That's a tough one. What do you get the gloomy girlfriend, the morbid mother, the baleful boss? What do you get for those who embrace the holiday spirit the way Ronald McDonald embraces vegetarianism?

Luckily, this year's crop of fiction has supplied plenty of grim-and-nasty fare for the doom-and-gloom brigade to sink its teeth into. Without further ado, here's our gift guide for the nihilist in your life.

It seems apt to begin with Robert Stone's Damascus Gate (Houghton Mifflin, 448 pages, $26), which goes back to the root of the holiday tradition. Set in Jerusalem in the early 1900s, this grim romp through Armageddon revolves around a plot to blow up a Muslim shrine and features a colorful cast of religious fanatics, murderous megalomaniacs, and opportunistic criminals. The gloomy, labyrinthine nooks and alleys of the Old City stand as a metaphor for the snarl of politics and religion that has turned the region into a powder keg of hatred. Portents abound (all bad). Even the infusion of new blood doesn't help: a hip young American is one of the book's most paranoid fanatics. Another central character, a manic-depressive named Adam De Kuff, kicks the Thorazine and declares himself the Messiah. Hallelujah indeed.

Another novel that takes religion to task is Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible (HarperFlamingo, 546 pages, $26), which relates the exploits of a pious prick of a preacher named Nathan Price. The self-

righteous Price (the book could have been named Price Is Right) drags his family into the dark heart of the Belgian Congo in order to minister to the natives -- who, quite happy with their own religious traditions, naturally want no part of it. Set in the 1950s, the book examines the hypocrisy and futility of America's ongoing quest to "save" (through religion or ideology) the teeming savages of the world. If this isn't grim enough for you, there are all the snakes, spiders, diseases, famines, and inclement weather conditions that made Joseph Conrad's earlier foray into the Congolese jungle such a pleasure to read.

While we're doing the religion bit, you might want to consider getting your nearest and dearest depressive a copy of the New Oxford Annotated Bible Revised Standard Edition (Oxford University Press, $84.99) -- arguably the greatest work of fiction ever written, and certainly one of the more gruesome. The grimly antic Book of Revelations alone is enough to strike misery into the heart of the most inveterate optimist.

Equally intractable -- not to mention scattershot of plot -- is Kathryn Davis's Hell (Ecco Press, 179 pages, $22), which follows the miseries visited upon two households over the course of three centuries, proclaims perpetual discord between body and soul, and flings the fact of human mortality in the reader's face. Lovely stuff. Davis gets bonus points for introducing creepy dolls peering out through the windows of dollhouses and, during one insanely surreal moment, having a mouse address the ghost of a dead child.

Speaking of putting strange words into even stranger mouths, Mr. Gen X himself, Douglas Coupland, gives much of the narrative of his latest roman-a-smarm over to the ghost of a dead slacker named Jared. The title of Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma (Regan Books/HarperCollins, 240 pages, $24) is slightly misleading, as the girlfriend in question is not exactly in a coma, but rather has awakened from one after nearly 20 years. And to what does she awaken? Well, her boyfriend and the rest of her buddies whining about the emptiness of existence, engaging in brand-name banter, and getting high on heroin. Oh yes, and a plague that wipes out the entire planet except for Coma Girl and her gaggle of friends. There is no justice.

Neither is there much justice in Irvine Welsh's appropriately titled Filth (W.W. Norton, 320 pages, $14). Welsh, never one to shy away from miserable imagery, outdoes himself with his latest antihero, police sergeant Bruce Robertson, the scourge of Edinburgh's finest. Robertson's faults could form a veritable laundry list of evil: he is bigoted, sexually depraved, foul-mouthed, corrupt, manipulative, murderous, drug- and booze-addled. But the book's well-rounded misanthropy pales beside Welsh's gleefully detailed descriptions of Robertson's bowel explosions and his constant picking at his scaly perineum. Suffice it to say that the single voice of reason in Filth belongs to a talking tapeworm, who intermittently narrates from Robertson's small intestine.

J.G. Ballard is another author who wallows in man's base nature -- albeit with more of a cerebral spin than Welsh. Ballard's latest, Cocaine Nights (Counterpoint Press, 336 pages, $23), takes us to the tourist nightmare of Spain's Costa del Sol, where a slew of typically Ballardian brainy debauchers do drugs, have sex, commit suicide and mass murder, and pontificate on the finer points of their depravity. "Crime and creativity," remarks one of the book's characters, "go together." Whatever happened to Truth and Beauty?

Creativity gets no less brutal treatment from Simon Lane, author of Fear (Bridge Works, 176 pages, $21.95). The protagonist of this book, a poet named (oddly) Fear, finds himself down and out in Paris, and he turns to the bottle for comfort. But Fear's sullied lifestyle is anything but poetic: flat broke and sotted, the bard turns to writing ineffectual erotic schlock in order to earn a sou or two. (Perhaps Lane's poet should have consulted with the rather more imaginative protagonist of Allen Hoffman's Two for the Devil, who finds himself locked up and tortured by the Soviet secret police for fantasizing about having anal sex with Comrade Stalin.)

But you don't have to travel to Paris or Moscow for a good dose of moral decay and sexual deviancy. In Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's An American Killing (Henry Holt, 320 pages, $23), death and debauchery reside right next door. Indeed, Smith treats us to a double whammy: not only is her book teeming with murderous sexual predators, but it portrays a predatory media machine eagerly waiting to report on the killers' brutal deeds. Readers of this book can sit back with a cappuccino and enjoy images of America's streets rife with drugs, prostitution, institutional cynicism, and hideous violence.

There's even more gore and grief in Joe Connelly's Bringing Out the Dead (Knopf, 288 pages, $23), which traces the path to despair taken by Frank Pierce, a paramedic working (literally) the graveyard shift in the moil of Hell's Kitchen. Faced with a nightly barrage of (meticulously described) stabbings, slashings, shootings, drownings, bloatings, overdoses, and horrible dismembering accidents, Pierce slips into madness and alcoholism. Finally, Connelly delivers his trump card as Pierce's sympathy -- that most human of emotions -- becomes twisted beyond recognition.

While the characters of Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True (Regan Books/HarperCollins, 901 pages, $27.50) manage to keep a grasp on sympathy, they are nonetheless watched over by an uncaring -- even sadistic -- God. A compendium of grief, this book contains more losses than a typical Red Sox season: lost love, lost jobs, lost sanity, lost loved ones, and lost limbs fill the book's pages and leave its inhabitants feeling -- well -- lost. "Life," says one character, is "a chair yanked away just as you were having a seat." And there's nothing like knowing we're the subject of a cosmic joke to chill the cockles.

Lost vision (in more than the literal sense) is the mournful theme of José Saramago's Blindness (Harcourt Brace, 304 pages, $22), which visits an epidemic of sightlessness on the nameless inhabitants of an unnamed city in an indistinct decade. Victims of the "White Evil" -- so called because the stricken see only white -- are herded into hospitals and kept inside by armed guards. Airplanes fall from the sky. Social order breaks down. The city streets are filled with trash, excrement, and corpses. Terror and hatred spread almost as fast as the White Evil, and many want to kill the afflicted to prevent further dissemination of the malady. Goodwill toward men, eh?

Although it never depicts quite such dramatic cultural collapse, T. Coraghessan Boyle's T.C. Boyle Stories (Viking, 624 pages, $35) gives us plenty of low-grade social breakdown, often the result of ecological catastrophe (or at least the looming prospect of ecological catastrophe). But Boyle's apocalyptic vision is no less creepy for not being consummated. After all, an uninhabitable planet is about as nihilistic as you can get.

Another whopping book of short stories, Ann Beattie's Park City: New and Selected Stories (Knopf, 464 pages, $25), assails the reader with a more local form of dissolution: the breakdown of love. One senses a sort of quiet glee from Beattie as she performs her emotional eviscerations, pointing out the polyps and cankers that fester beneath the thin skin of human relationships.

Modern romance gets another panning in Nick Hornby's About a Boy (Riverhead Books, 307 pages, $22.95), which tells the tale of an immature, materialistic, amoral twentysomething named (perhaps significantly) Will. In the book, Will (who lives off the royalties of his father's Christmas hit "Santa's Super Sleigh") masquerades as a single dad so he can mine the vein of available women in a single parents' group. Hilarity borne of heinous behavior -- who could ask for more?

Speaking of which, the final appalling book on our holiday hit list is Kenneth Starr's The Starr Report: The Official Report of the Independent Counsel's Investigation of the President (Prima Publishing, 400 pages, $9.95), which, while not strictly fictional, nonetheless maps out the pattern of modern moral corruption with such skill and vigor that no self-respecting nihilist should be without a copy. Give it to Daddy with a nice stogie.

Chris Wright is currently working on the first page of his collection of short stories, I Have Seen the Mermaids Miming, due out sometime in the fall of 2038.

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