Sep 7 2011

Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

Matthew Shaer

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Charles Homar, the hero of William Giraldi's novel, is a middling memoirist of minor acclaim and a columnist for a popular glossy magazine called New Nation Weekly. Four times a month, this esteemed periodical pays Homar to recount, in majestically baroque language, the various travails that God hath inflicted upon Charles Homar, which include a perpetually dyspeptic father and a stubborn squirrel infestation in his suburban New England home. New Nation Weekly, of course, is a fiction, as is the conceit that any publication would employ Homar to fill its pages. He's a dolt, this guy, self-centered and unflaggingly loquacious, "three parts impulse and one part woebegone." He writes like a Brooklyn blogger doing an impression of Edward Gibbon, and talks like a strange mélange of Ivanhoe, Bertie Wooster, and Hannibal Lecter.

Here is Homar, saving a comely lass from a stalled-out Ferris wheel, at a local county fair: "I am neither bogus nor brash, just a citizen out doing his duty. Look into my eyes, miss. What do you see there? That's right: I was a Templar Knight a few lives ago. Let's meet the earth." And here, evaluating a Filipino UFO scholar (more on him later): "His voice had no evidence of Filipino in it but was, rather, part homosexual, part Houston. He squinted my way as if I were dawn and he newly awakened." And finally, here is Homar on paranormal activity––specifically, why women supposedly put more stock in it than men:

The studies doing the showing are jury-rigged against womankind, what with their implications that because gals are on average more emotional than guys, they fall for every paranormalist with a Ponzi scheme. Men are more rational than women, the studies show, a conclusion you'd find highly suspect if you were to visit a tailgate party in the parking lot of any American football stadium or, say, the alleyways of Pamplona where the X/Y chromosomal combo enjoys jogging alongside irritated bulls.

And on it goes, a teetering pile of digressions and windy pronouncements, peppered with observations on Alexander the Great, childbirth, assault rifles, Motown music, Wilkie Collins, the Marquis de Sade, Don Henley, Ted Turner, Tennyson, the Buddha, the McDonalds arches, the resemblance of a certain stomach ailment to a "malarial Amazonian waterfall," etc. Which is not to say Homar is not funny––he is, and much of the joy of Busy Monsters comes from watching the protagonist bumble his way from one misadventure to the next, all the while maintaining an impressively detailed first-person monologue.

As Busy Monsters opens, our protagonist is living in "the Garden of Connecticut" alongside his fiancé Gillian, a "dazzling babe" possessed of a beauty of the "injurious kind." Unfortunately, Gillian is also possessed of a brute of an ex-byfriend named Marvin Gluck, whose "voice and testicular presence could hush the human flotsam in any riled-up room." For more than a year, Gluck, a state trooper in Virginia, has been tormenting Gillian and Homar with threats, "bestial" text messages, and "soilsome letters." Gillian is inclined to ignore her ex––"I think he's only bluffing," she says––but Homar fears the worst, and with the help of Groot, a childhood chum and current Navy SEAL, he makes plans to murder Gluck. Using a knife. "When you exit the body you pull up on the serrated side," Groot explains. The bookish Homar vows to consult a medical encyclopedia.

It is worth noting here that any reader particularly troubled by the hows and whys of a plot––a reader, in short, looking for anything remotely resembling realism––should approach Busy Monsters with caution. Giraldi's book is a fantasy, an absurdist jaunt, a particularly fanciful picaresque; it is governed by its own peculiar internal logic.

So yes, Homar goes to Virginia, armed with a large black combat knife, and stumbles into Gluck's living room, only to find that Gluck has killed himself. Problem solved, our hearty paladin thinks, and he returns to New England in a state of bliss, which lasts almost up to the date of his wedding, when Gillian leaves Homar for a mustachioed squid hunter named Jacob Jacobi. This is not completely unexpected: Gillian has a quasi-sexual fixation with giant squids, and can rattle off statistics on the tentacled beast at an alarming velocity. Still, Homar is thrown into a tizzy, and after discovering a series of letters between Jacobi and Gillian, he sets off for Maine, where Jacobi keeps his boat, The Kraken. This time, he totes along a DSA Gas-Trap Carbine, "a feisty girl, fully auto, though loyal."

A confrontation ensues, but whereas in Virginia, where Homar emerged triumphant, in Maine he finds himself soundly defeated, on at least two different levels: Gillian is going to sea with Jacobi, and Homar, having taken a few shots at The Kraken, is going to jail. He is released, eventually, and for the next couple hundred pages, he wanders America, chasing beasts external and internal––the "busy monsters" of the title––and pining hopelessly for his lost love. In the leafy forests of the Pacific Northwest, he joins the bounty hunter known as Romp on a search for the elusive Sasquatch. In Seattle, he joins up with the most preeminent UFO scholar in all of the Philippines ("never mind that being the preeminent anything in the Philippines is nothing to light up over a ballpark," Homar scoffs). In Cambridge, he bickers with a troupe of real-life Ghostbusters. In New Jersey, he is instructed in the ways of group love by two Asian prostitutes and an Italian bodybuilder –– a "six-foot-two mass of hairless, striated muscle, three hundred pounds of rounded granite tanned bronze," etc.

This adventuring can prove exhausting. Part of the problem is the prose, which is often wildly tangled, or else over-freighted. (We are meant to believe that the chapters of the book are more or less the memoirs that Homar is publishing in New Nation Weekly, which accounts for the syntactical density.) Consider this description of a shopping trip:

I trekked behind the motel, through unsightly weeds and scrub, to a ghastly Walmart nevertheless looking majestic in the midday sun blaze. The heat was everywhere and outrageous; I longed for an arctic blizzard to chill me into submission and acceptance. Instead, I had the summer and the way it makes a man lonesome and tender. That clothing I planned to purchase had been wrought by orphans in Malaysia; but––I needed new duds and could not afford to mime a person with choice or leisure.

It was hot and Homar needed clothes, in other words, and he went to Wal-Mart; the clothes were satisfactory. Homar had it more poetically, but after 280-plus pages of poetics, the reader may find him or herself––like Homar––panting with exhaustion. Similarly, although the characters here are big, bold, and unforgettable––Romp is particularly great fun––they are also one-note creations. Romp brawls; the bodybuilder lifts weights; the dwarfish UFO hunter has a Napoleon complex.

Still, if you can get past the writerly pyrotechnics and the cartoonish antics of the cast, Busy Monsters has some genuinely incandescent, quietly, and deftly observed moments. Near the end of the book, for instance, Homar leaves the squids and sasquatches behind, and returns home to attend the funeral of a family member. "Whisper this (slowly, in earnest): Why do we do the things we do?" Homar broods. "How can we make sense of our lives in the belly of this madness? Do we suffer so much for wealth and renown, for the love of a boy or a girl or God? All this emptiness, within and without, and we here with a shovel between two nothings, trying to fill, and fill." The chapter––essentially an aside, between one quest and the next; Giraldi labels it an "Interlude"––provides a nice counterbalance to the relentless march of the plot.

Best of all is the conclusion, which sees Homar and a pack of friends and well-wishers gathering near the seashore, in a last-ditch effort to reunite Homar with Gillian. Without spoiling the ending, it may suffice to say that Homar does enjoy a victory, of sorts––he decides to stop wandering, and set up shop again in Connecticut, far from the ghosts and UFOs, which remained "alive, yes, but in memory, memory alone." As it turns out, the worst of the "busy monsters" were the ones inside his head.

Matthew Shaer writes for New York, the Washington Post, and Harper's, among other publications. His first book, Among Righteous Men, will be published in November by Wiley.

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