By Eric Kraft (St. Martin's Press, 256 pp., $23.95)
Whatever he does as a novelist, Eric Kraft will always have my gratitude for one thing: creating what may be the happiest and least neurotic sex in American literature. Let us pause for a moment to consider this feat. Sex in Kraft's books is not a weapon, not a sickness, not a failing. It does not destroy homes or turn people into addicts and predators. It is neither to be feared nor demonized. Kraft writes about sex for people who will spend their lives happily wedded to (and bedded by) one person, yet will supplement that union guiltlessly with a blissful and calisthenic fantasy life.
If this sounds like a trivial accomplishment, ask yourself how many times you've seen it done. Especially in the guise of comic novels, which Kraft's most assuredly and joyously are. For the past two decades, Kraft has charted the "personal history, adventures, experiences and observations" of a fictional alter ego named Peter Leroy, a figure who came to the author in a daydream as a boy on a boat dock. Around Peter, Kraft has constructed a mythology as elaborate as that of his literary model, Proust. It encompasses amorous twins, radio shows, various fake but exacting scientific manuals, and a fictional Long Island town called Babbington. No matter how arcane the subject or the piece of post-World War II pop-culture flotsam, Kraft revels in its deadpan absurdity, in the grand passions that people pour into loony obsessionsthe junk mail of the cosmos.
By this point Peter is grown, married, and in Kraft's new novel Passionate Spectator, facing middle age and the first glimmers of mortality. Not that the book ever resembles anything so glum and prosaic as that description. Now a clientless "professional memoirist" who touts his ability to spice up people's autobiographies, Peter picks up what he thinks is a self-help book about effective promotion. And it isfor taxidermists. A less adventurous man would be discouraged by this purchase. Not Peter, who sees evidence of life's grand design even in the drone of a jury-instruction manual. He finds that the principles of the memoirist are not so different from those of a guy who stuffs raccoons.
"For the memoirist who invents as much as he records, living life is only half the fun," Peter marvels. "Life is a rough draft. The mind remakes it, revises it, reshapes it, unwittingly through memory, deliberately through the imagination." Passionate Spectator gives Peter the chance to revise his own life. The bulk of the novel is given over to Peter's hyperactive imagination, stirred to a boil by his lack of success and the surprise insights of his taxidermist counselor. To free himself momentarily from his worriesand from his wife Albertine, who indulges his whims with skeptical tolerancePeter daydreams a pair of pseudonymous alternate lives, one within the other.
One allows him to explore a world of erotic opportunities, each paired with a new obsession: a lithe "rebel angel" from a cult of alien worshippers, a real-estate marketer trying to pitch the perfect planned community, a jaded single who likens the search for love to the pursuit of the perfect crab cake, with the proper balance of substance to filling. The other life permits him to experience, vicariously, his own near death. Kraft's method, like the magician's, is to divert the reader with joke set-ups and enough meandering tangents to stock a kennel with shaggy-dog stories, while carefully spinning his own grand design.
Peter's fantasy life is literally the center of Passionate Spectator, which forms a kind of literary M&M with a hard but sweet shell surrounding a confectionary heart. The analogy isn't as crazy as it sounds. Peter helpfully provides us with a spherical diagram of the book, with his experiences as the outer ring and the imagined adventures of his own alter egos as the core. (If you're thinking Tristram Shandy, with its narrative graphs and recombinant digressions, you're on to the author's game.) A reader thus moves through Kraft's book as if tunneling into the earth, passing through deeper and darker realms of imagination.
Once Kraft enters that core, all the previous themes, tangents and characters that seemed funny but inessential start to collide and connect with dizzying speed. In an earlier book, Where Do You Stop? (Crown, 1992), Peter wonders at which point a person's molecules end, keeping him distinct from everything else in the world. Here he wonders where the moment ends and memory begins, and his conclusion is the same: It never really does. The same fictional impulse that leads the memoirist to make his life bigger and juicier helps make sense of the world's flood of raw data, connecting dots of experiencea sensation Kraft evokes, with typical comic élan, at the moment Peter suddenly notices all the blobs of gum on a New York sidewalk.
Passionate Spectator comes off a bit arch at times, a side effect of funneling so many voices through the filter of a single imagined consciousness. The characters tend to talk alike when they're elaborating Kraft's themes, even between mouthfuls of cunnilingus. I'm grateful whenever supporting players barge in with welcome brusqueness, like a surly bailiff out of a Preston Sturges stock company. But at its center this is the bleakest of the Peter Leroy books, the one most openly despairing about a culture that encourages consumption without joy and life without introspection.
And yet it's a measure of his generosity and good-heartedness as a creator that Eric Kraft at his bleakest still manages such capacity for delight. Those who've been following Kraft since his wondrous 1988 novel Herb 'N' Lornaa hilarious epic romance about Peter's suburban grandparents, who lead secret lives as artisans of "animated erotic jewelry"long for the time we never again have to explain who Peter Leroy is. He should be part of a reader's lexicon. Each Peter Leroy novel can stand alone as a book, but they're best enjoyed as a whole, as a kind of running counterpart to our own lives, a Christmas newsletter that unfolds to reveal an entire universe in origami. Every few years he'll check in, and we'll add his experiences to our treasure trove of memory, where they'll inevitably blur into our own remembrance of things past.
Fiction, like sex, is a spice of life. At stake in Passionate Spectator, and the Peter Leroy books as a whole, is nothing less than an assessment of each person's place in the universenot just as a memoirist or taxidermist, equally prone to embellishing a preserved and idealized memory, but as a spectator who gives shape to life simply by watching and remembering. "We memoirists know that we do not make life's journey to get somewhere," Peter concludes; "we make the journey so we can tell the tale. We assist as passionate spectators at the little drama of our lives." Eric Kraft is our passionate spectator, and the world is his crab cake.
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…
How ironic that "Vandy radio" gets resurrected as a fictional station?! I was just glad…
Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.