Donald Barthelme, according to the biography Hiding Man, offered a bold prediction one evening in 1974. His dinner companions were John Barth and Joseph McElroy, and Barthelme declared that "the smart money" was on McElroy's novel Lookout Cartridge for the National Book Award. The smart money proved wrong; Gravity's Rainbow took home the prize. McElroy came up short again in 1987 when he published the thousand-page opus Women and Men, a book that prompted Tom LeClair to hail its author as "the most important now writing in America." In a career of more than half a century, McElroy has never achieved a broader esteem. He's remained overlooked and under-read, though his "intensities," as Sven Birkerts put it in a review of the 2003 novel An Actress in the House, have continued "to stun ... over and over."
The new Cannonball proves McElroy's intensity hasn't waned. Laudable for its brio alone, Cannonball marries adolescent fumbling to Orwellian nightmare, while developing a deliciously wicked fantasy out of our country's Iraq misadventure. The reading experience, however, is dominated by a challenging syntax. Sentences fold, stretch, snap, and reattach in ways that can, for several lines at a time, resist understanding.
McElroy has always had a fondness for the long sentence, in which predicate can take its sweet time matching up with subject. Here, however, he often makes do with a shadow-match, in a style even more demanding than before. Consider our narrator as he misjudges his leap, disastrously, off a diving board:
...for Time—so little between fall and water—all but ignored me, slow-on-the-uptake, a pale panel came up to skim me and raw studs wrenched askew and steel I-beam end four-by-eight ply split torqued velocity at you between instants of a life you could call failed.
Such passages have an idiosyncratic beauty, and may mirror the whorls of consciousness; indeed, the text includes a meditation on fingerprints. Still, tracing those whorls is slow work, and I doubt this novel will expand its author's narrow circle of fans. Yet beneath the baroque surface one finds a compelling subject: deluded kids as the puppets of war profiteers.
The lead marionette is Zachary, a teenager out of San Diego and our "slow-on-the-uptake" narrator. Zach needs much of the book to discover he dwells at Ground Zero 'zackly. Such wordplay is typical, to be sure; the novel's title refers to both a big splash and a bomb. Such puns counter, somewhat, the fundamental tragedy of Zach's case: He's an unwitting player in an intricate, diabolical scam of the Iraq war. An Army photographer, he's sent on an unexplained assignment to a pool beneath a liberated palace. There, what he catches on camera may be an insurgent attack, an IED going off under the pool.
Maybe: The collateral damage includes questions about both the bombers and the target, and McElroy's prose fractals, seen in their entirety, do yield answers. The central disaster haunts the rest: "Time twisting, braiding, stumbling, for me to see my way out...." So Zach's initiation into evils he'll encounter in Iraq figure too in the book's outset, when he's still in high school and most events concern his swim team. Indeed, overall the story's arrangement emerges as chronological. First the protagonist suffers the uncertainties of life before enlistment, then the mysteries of the catastrophe beneath Baghdad, then the dog-and-pony hearings that follow, back in California.
In those hearings, to be sure, less than a fraction of the truth gets into the record. History gets written by the winners, once again, and in such a context, what does Zach's coming of age matter? Character development isn't at issue in Cannonball. Rather, this novel follows the curve of Gravity's Rainbow, driven by conspiracy, its young people only a means of exposing the sins of the old regime. The principal nemeses are Zach's father, an Army Reservist, and Dad's spooky DC connection, a man awfully comfortable with the devastation in Iraq. Their machinations seek to promote a dubious archeological find, an alternative Gospel called "the Scrolls." In these, Jesus sounds downright Cheneyesque. McElroy provides just a taste or two of the new Apocrypha, but these prove scrumptious: "Blessed are they who come to market, for they take the trouble to know who they're dealing with."
Now, what hope remains, when our Redeemer deals cutthroat? In Zach's case, he has allies. He has a strangely intuitive younger sister and a full-of-beans friend, an illegal immigrant. Both relationships are more intimate than they ought to be, though in the case of the sister the problem isn't legal or moral, but rather with the story. Even a novel light on psychological development can't wave away the complications of incest, though granted, Zach and sis fall just short of the act itself. In dancing to the verge, McElroy shows great skill—but he's better by far with Umo, Zach's immigrant friend, born in Mongolia. A massive kid with a sylph's moves, spunky and speaking a broken English that dovetails with the anti-grammar of the narrative voice, this character would be, in another sort of book, its greatest invention.
What most distinguishes this late accomplishment, rather, seems to be the same as what makes it difficult, namely, the voice. The poetry of Cannonball owes a clear debt to Emily Dickinson, her way with a sentence, unstable yet carefully patterned. The novel favors Dickinson with all sorts of allusions, even perhaps Zach's occasional capitalization of "Time," a tic that also points to the conflict between scripted History and messy experience. McElroy stands with the woman of Amherst both in his fresh American idiom, splendidly thorny, and in his proud withdrawal from a devious world.
John Domini's latest novel is A Tomb on the Periphery. See johndomini.com.