Sunday, December 27, 2015

D. Keith Mano, Take Five (1982)

Interesting state of affairs: D. Keith Mano is a prolific-ish novelist, and generally well-regarded (at least to the extent that this book was reprinted by my heroes at Dalkey Archive)—and yet, the man doesn't have a wikipedia page. Not even a stub. Go figure, eh?

It's a long novel, and dense, which is why it took me over a month to read. It concerns one Simon Lynxx, scion of a formerly-wealthy but now pretty definitively decayed family. Simon is a sleazy, fast-talking con artist, though apparently also a filmmaker of some talent. The book chronicles his escapades, which involve trying to scrounge together money for his latest opus, dealing with the variously flaky members of his crew, running from the ghosts of his alternately neglectful and abusive parents, and pursuing a woman who may turn out to be his salvation. All of this is delivered in a boisterous, stream-of-consciousness manner largely dominated by Simon's rapid-fire, wordplay-filled dialogue, which is schticky as all hell but also quite entertaining. Oh but that's not all, for that title, you see, is polysemic: in addition to referring to his ambitions as an auteur, it also denotes the way he loses his senses, one by one, over the course of the novel. The page numbers count down, starting at five ninety and ending at one (styled with an infinity symbol). The idea is that, as he loses his ability to interact with the world, he gains grace and, maybe, redemption (with the help of Merry, the woman in question).

The thing that must be noted here is that Mano is not joking around with this stuff—well, actually, he's doing almost nothing but joking around with it, but he's also serious: he's a very conservative Christian, in the US sense, albeit an idiosyncratic one. The dang ol' book is dedicated to noted white supremacist William F. Buckley (who, I've no doubt, was very charming and generous with his friends). You can read this interview to get an idea of what he's about. In spite of how he identifies, it seems to me that most conservative evangelicals would find his worldview bemusing if not outright blasphemous, but he certainly seems to be making an effort to be intellectually honest, which is more than most of them can say.

So anyway, the best compliment I can pay him is that the artistic impulse handily trumped the ideological (in this case, at least—this novel, where radical environmentalist liberal fascists take over, sounds pretty damned risible). If you didn't know where he was coming from, you would not guess it from the novel. So, for instance, in the above-linked interview, he says:'re dealing here with a very conservative Christian, one who left the Episcopal Church in part because he could not take communion from a female.

...and yet, guess what Merry, the highest embodiment of goodness in the novel and the one who plays a good part in saving Simon, if he's to be saved, is? That's right: a female Episcopal priest. Nor is she any kind of be-pedestaled straw saint; she's a flawed human being like everyone. There are no stacked decks here; you never feel as though anyone's being treated unfairly or behaving unlike they would in real life because the author wants to make a point. The book is very emphatically not Left Behind, is what I'm saying.

For all that, though, it seems to me to have some pretty obvious flaws. First, this whole “losing each sense one by one scheme to represent the path to salvation” business doesn't seem all that well-thought-out. The first senses Simon loses are, naturally, the least debilitating, taste and smell, and their loss doesn't slow him down; indeed, it seems barely to faze him. I feel like he should be gradually coming to question his life more and more with each loss, but nothing at all like that happens until—some four hundred fifty pages into a five hundred ninety novel—he loses his sense of touch. And even then...I mean, I appreciate that Mano is too subtle to give us a straightforward conversion narrative, but one is somewhat doubtful that much of anything's happened along those lines at all. Another problem may be that Simon isn't actually that terrible to begin with: sure he has flaws—does he ever—but he's hardly the embodiment of evil. I can think of a LOT of people who could use salvation more than he can. It may be the old Paradise Lost problem: the Devil can't help but seeming more interesting (and sympathetic, yet) than God.

Well, in spite of everything, it's a pretty good book. Mano certainly doesn't suffer from a lack of ambition, and if the result feels a bit woolly and overstuffed on occasion, it's certainly better than the opposite. Take Five is full of life, that's for sure, whether or not its author actually approves of said life.

Now, should I tell you how he loses his senses? I mean, given that you're not likely to read the book? Sure, why not? But if you ARE, I wouldn't read on so you can see for yourself.

Right, he loses his sense of taste when he confuses syphoned gasoline with salad dressing and sets his mouth on fire when he lights a cigarette. He loses his sense of smell when he browbeats two members of his crew into beating up an elderly Jewish producer, Herman Wolff, while shouting anti-Semitic slurs so he can save the day and get an in with the guy and hopefully get some funding. Surprisingly, this works gangbusters, and eventually Wolff shares with him an experimental, nasal drug that allows one to experience someone else's past along with them (this is the only science-fiction-y thing in the book). The side effect: loss of smell. He loses his sense of touch when this clever plan comes back and bites him in the ass: turns out one of the assailants dropped a piece of incriminating evidence, and Wolff sics them back on Simon, but gets more revenge than he expected: by a freak chance, one of them whacks him in the back of the head, and bam, no more feeling. He loses his sense of hearing...apparently as a delayed effect of the above; nothing too dramatic. And either I'm a bad reader or the narrative doesn't make it particularly clear how his sight goes; it's just suddenly gone.


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