Jack Pendarvis

Books Reviews Jack Pendarvis
Jack Pendarvis

Mythical giant vs. the modern world—readers win

has a white whale. Gravity’s Rainbow has outsized sexual shenanigans. Awesome, by Jack Pendarvis, has both.

The hero of this short, dizzying comic novel is the title character, a massive, handsome, supremely powerful man who strides the earth like nobody’s business. He wears a derby hat. He lives with his robot ward Jimmy, who is Robin to his Batman, and he has a kind of love affair with his downstairs neighbor, Glorious Jones. After his plans to marry her go haywire, Awesome is launched into a series of adventures that find him careering from odd situation to odd situation, applying himself gigantically wherever ?he goes.

Awesome is a huge man with many tiny problems, and this makes him unreal in many senses and all too real in others. The world he moves through resembles him in that regard: It is flecked all along the way with bits of everyone from Elkin to Twain to Mary Shelley, but is indebted mainly to American tall tales like Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan.

Throughout, Pendarvis is funny. It is one of his defining characteristics, and no one will ever dispute it. He is funny the way Awesome is large. But there is a style in service of this characteristic, a mix of slippery diction and protracted conceits.

Take this sentence, in which ?Awesome considers his busy days: “My schedule, you see, is a taxing one. The concentration involved would cause an ordinary person’s brain to crumble into bits like a Renaissance fresco or a muffin.”

This business with the muffin occurs early in Awesome. It is not a major plot point. Muffins do not resurface as a leitmotif. But it is worth pausing to note that in addition to the great delight an author feels in writing such sentences, there is—or should be—something at stake in asking others to read them. Delight should be transmitted to them imperfectly, partially obstructed with unease.

The best comedy in Awesome operates this way, like a roman candle that fires off—between brightly colored pulses—mirrored balls that reflect back both the vivid hues of the fireworks and the dull and unprofitable reality that surrounds them. Some of the work, the hard work, of Awesome, happens in this negative space, elsewhere brought into sharper focus. Awesome, the giant, is magical. A substance like spun sugar shoots from his orifices. But at the same time, he speaks of snapping pictures with iPhones, reading The New York Times’ Escapes section, and selling things on eBay. It is our world, thuddingly so, and not a world that Awesome seems particularly pleased with beneath his chipper ?manner. He cannot exactly connect with its other inhabitants. This outsider’s pain is framed early on, as Awesome considers his derby hat. “Hey, we live in modern times these days,” he imagines others complaining. “That derby doesn’t fit into my view of the world.” His ?response? “Exactly.” And yet, he still wants in. Can he make it under his own power, on his own terms? This is, finally, the tension that pushes the novel forward: Awesome’s scorn for the world cannot overwhelm his love for it.

At one point, Awesome is shot in the navel under circumstances that approach betrayal. He wakes with a pithy commentary about modern literature: When I woke up, I had developed amnesia. I recognized the symptoms of this, the most common disease in the United States of America, from a number of bestselling experimental novels concerned with the human condition and the limitations of language itself. Strangely, though I remembered those novels word for word, I could not remember anything about myself, aside from the vague notion that I needed to find something.

The amnesia, like the muffin, does not become a leitmotif. This is an ?entirely isolated joke, an island on which one man is jabbing himself in the ribs. The amnesia is quickly forgotten. And yet, in forgetting it, Awesome (man and novel) locates itself right back in the dead (or dying) center of that diseased, pretentious, disconnected United States of America. Jokes, when they are good jokes, fold in on themselves. The question is how many folds they have, and whether they can be unfolded in time to save any of us.

On the strength of this vivid, sometimes sadly hilarious evidence, we should be hopeful.

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