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Book Review

Striking novel sends some quirky characters down a rocky road

Email|Print| Text size + By Carlo Wolff
February 27, 2008

Laura Warholic or, the Sexual Intellectual
By Alexander Theroux
Fantagraphics Books, 878 pp., $29.95

Aching for one woman yet ambivalent about another, Eugene Eyestones doesn't know how to commit. Consumed by two hatreds, Laura Warholic can engage in nothing but quickie relationships. Eugene craves a distant beauty but counts on Laura for inspiration. Laura detests her husband and father equally. Eugene and Laura slow-dance through Alexander Theroux's striking "Laura Warholic," an overheated stroll down the lanes of recent culture wars.

Reading Theroux's first novel in nearly 20 years is a challenge, but Theroux's stupendous gift of gabbing in tongues carries "Laura Warholic," which is old-fashioned in its erudition and sprawl. A gallimaufry of minimal action and maximal thought, this is a creditable stab at writing the Great American novel.

Eugene is a sex columnist for Quink, an alternative newspaper in Boston. Laura is the spurned wife of Quink publisher and repugnant gourmand Minot Warholic. Eugene and Laura never have an affair, though Laura would like one. Eugene, instead, craves Rapunzel Wisht, whom he idealizes from afar (until he gets way too close). Unable to bond with Rapunzel, unwilling to do so with Laura, Eyestones stays in his head, writing long, erudite essays designed to increase readership for Quink, a kind of sanctuary for him, Minot Warholic, and a host of other quirky characters.

Eventually, Eugene and the shiftless Laura ("Her trains of thought had no cabooses") take a cross-country trip to see whether they can connect. This gives Eugene a chance to reality-check his perceptions and Theroux an opportunity for broad satire. In the crosshairs are strip clubs, rock 'n' roll joints (Theroux is dead-on about punk rock, particularly in conjuring one band whose lead singer is Laura's deepest yen) and alternative bars, name-checking everyone from de Tocqueville to Hobbes to Iggy Pop to Santayana to the Bible (a lot) in dazzling riffs on the bubbling detritus of American culture.

The book's rub is: What makes Eugene hang with Laura, who, it seems, has no redeeming qualities? That makes at least schematic sense if the answer is because she's a kind of muse in reverse, but that still doesn't make her more than a compendium of richly detailed flaws. There's something misogynistic about Theroux's treatment of Laura, more broadly articulated in Eugene's sour musings on women. Eugene's and Laura's relationship is indeed complicated: "Was he involved with her or not?" Eugene asks himself about Laura. "We are more involved in those we pity than those we love, he was sure of it, and he knew that she maintained hold over him by way of his pity for her. Those we love exact another investment."

While that rub persists deep into the book, the rhapsodic, obsessive piling on of detail - Eugene's pursuit of Rapunzel into a strip bar; Laura's indiscretions with Jeff Bummely, the lead band member; the mounting nightmare of Laura's landlord, the crippled, randy Micepockets - propel "Laura Warholic" toward a strong, shocking conclusion. Theroux may have launched this work with only satire in mind, but it grew into something far deeper. And all along, it rings with unique linguistic power.

Try this description of Bummely, Laura's guitar-slinging object of desire: "He was a fanatical A-1, fur-lined, dyed-in-the-wool record raccoon, one of those out-of-the-box vinyl freaks and mad anything-about-music obsessives whose perpetually curled hand betrayed the clawing motion arranged to flip through stacks of records until he dropped."

Nailing a type is but one of Theroux's talents. Nailing a vibe, perhaps even pop culture itself, is another. "Laura Warholic" at times may seem a slog, but it's an amazing trip.

Carlo Wolff is the author of "Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories."

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