During my college years I interned at various litmags, sorting through slush piles in search of gold. I must have read hundreds of stories, and skimmed several hundred more. One of the very few that affected me deeply was called "The Pipe." It involved a security guard and a paramedic, hired to watch over a pipe sticking out of the ground. Six feet beneath the pipe is a radio DJ, attempting to break some sort of record for being buried alive, a la David Blaine. The paramedic and guard are there in case the DJ rings his distress bell and wants to come up. But the bell never rings, and so the two men have plenty of time to get stoned and drunk, have sex with transsexual women in the back of the ambulance, trade insults, and attempt to poison each other. Things go so far off the deep end that you start to wonder, what if the DJ's distress bell isn't hooked up properly, and he's been ringing it all this time? Is there even a DJ buried down there at all? And if there is, wouldn't he be dead by now?
The story somehow combined laugh-out-loud hilarity and existential terror, an ingenious cross between No Exit and Waiting for Godot. I raved about it to the editors of the magazine I was reading for at the time, but for some unfathomable reason they took a pass. I forgot the author's name, but never forgot the story. Fast forward five years or so: I pick up Jack Pendarvis' first story collection, The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure. There it is: "The Pipe." I almost drop the book.
Less than a year after the paperback release of Mysterious Secret, Pendarvis follows it up this month with Your Body Is Changing, a selection of several short pieces and one longish novella that, in its best moments, proves Pendarvis to be capable of brilliant po-mo social satire in the tradition of Kurt Vonnegut, or George Saunders (who provides some glowing blurbage).
The universe inhabited by Pendarvis' characters closely resembles our own, except with the mechanisms that serve to regulate normal human behavior strangely absent. Everyone in his stories, whether they know it or not, is utterly, floridly, unabashedly, batshit insane. Pendarvis has a tremendous gift for rendering the mindless niceties of colloquial speech. The characters speak, and you are lulled into thinking this is a normal person talking, saying the kind of thing you've heard a million times before, until the camera pulls back and what you thought you saw is something completely else.
Here's a quote from an ad exec being interviewed in "Courageous Blast: The Legacy of America's Most Radical Gum:" "There's a lot of talk right now about courage and whatnot, but whenever I'm pressed for a definition I just say, take a look at It Better Be Gum." What is "It Better Be Gum?" A mystery substance that causes horrible diarrhea and permanent gastrointestinal damage (or, in the words of the ad exec, a "sea change in the way Americans engage with gum as a recreational snack.") A huge fan of the product explains that he didn't realize the terrible burning and the hours on the john were caused by his favorite gum. "I just thought there was something wrong with me."
The problem with Your Body Is Changing is the same problem that most story collections have -- unevenness. The title novella takes up about half the length of the book, and alongside it are seven brief pieces, some only a page or two long. Some of them appeared originally online, and they are as insubstantial as cotton candy. Some lean a bit too heavily on the cheap shot and the one-note gag.
The title novella, though, is terrific and too short. I wish Jack Pendarvis had jettisoned the filler and expanded "Your Body Is Changing" to novel length, so we could spend more time with Henry Gill, a fourteen-year-old Alabama resident, committed fundamentalist Christian, and guilt-wracked seeker of truth, whose deep religious conviction co-mingles with his sweaty-palmed, feverish sexual fantasies. Its opening paragraph is an image so startling and singular that I have to quote the whole thing:
"Henry and his mother returned from Wednesday-night prayer meeting to find an enormous owl eating sausage biscuits out of a torn sack on the kitchen counter. When they walked in the door, the owl turned its head all the way around on its neck and looked over at them just as calm as could be, and it was holding a biscuit in one set of talons like a man eating half a sandwich."
If you say you're not physically compelled to keep reading after an opening like that, you're a liar.
Henry is abandoned by his mother early on, and literally stumbles into the dark woods, like Dante at the start of the Divine Comedy. Henry meets people who test and challenge his faith, and he does battle against his private urges, with limited success. He has a favorite book called "Your Body Is Changing: a Christian Teen's Guide to Sexuality" which has taught him that "Masturbation is a perfectly normal urge that happens to everyone on the planet and it must be avoided at all costs."
He finds shelter with a family of "secular humanists" headed by a pathetic college professor, a red-stater's worst nightmare of pompous coastal intelligentsia. "I would pay a million dollars to a person who could show me a prayer that accomplished even as much as one miniscule droplet of gasoline," he says. Henry is horrified. "These people probably wish they were in France right now," Henry thinks, "making fun of the President and going number two on the American flag." He spends a lot of time fantasizing about Hollywood actresses, imagining how he would save their doomed souls and also get to second base.
Henry eventually finds Brother Lampey, a preacher, builder of scarecrows, goat owner and "outsider artist" (another wonderfully batshit Pendarvis original) who takes him under his (foul-smelling, unwashed) wing. After many misadventures, Henry finds a path out of the dark woods of his soul, in a most surprising fashion.
Jack Pendarvis has a unique voice and vision. He holds up a distorted funhouse mirror to post-millenial America, and will make you think as much as he will make you laugh -- and by the time you get to the end of the book, no pieties (neither Fundamentalist Christian nor Secular Humanist) will be left intact.