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BOOK REVIEW

Comic novel too ‘Busy’ for its own good

By Kevin O’Kelly
Globe Correspondent / August 25, 2011

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When Charlie Homar’s fiancee, Gillian, leaves him without warning to pursue her lifelong dream of capturing a giant squid, he’s understandably devastated. But since this is supposed to be a comic novel, the reader doesn’t really feel his pain. Unfortunately, the reader isn’t laughing either, primarily because of Charlie’s voice, which annoyingly alternates between nonsensical and grandiloquent.

Wallowing in misery in their empty condominium just hours after she has left, he describes himself as dipping “pita bread into my hubris . . . [declaring] that hummus was the fatal flaw that got Agamemnon stabbed in his bathtub.’’ Later, telling his parents that Gillian has left him and he’s heartbroken, Charlie moans, “I sit before you now no better than ejecta . . . a discarded pipsqueak with a whole gaggle of hurt within him’’ It’s bad enough that Charlie talks like this throughout the book, but so, at times, does his best friend, Groot (yes, Groot), and Groot’s associate Romp, whom Groot introduces to us as “Hunter. Scholar. Negro. Priest. Prophet. Man of jazz and all items sacrosanct.’’

Some of the initial reviewers of “Busy Monsters’’ compare the novel to the works of writers such as Barry Hannah, of whose writing “Busy Monsters’’ is a pale imitation, and Flannery O’Connor, which makes little sense to me. William Giraldi, an editor of the literary magazine Agni who teaches at Boston University, is clearly enamored of the latter-day practitioners of the Southern Grotesque, and that’s the source of this novel’s biggest problem. Giraldi hasn’t yet succeeded in getting out of the shadows of his idols. “Busy Monsters’’ has the overblown voice of Hannah, as well as his misogyny and madness, and the outrageous plotting of both Hannah and Florida writer Harry Crews, but the book completely lacks an emotional core.

Homar tries to prevent Gillian’s departure by rushing to port and, with weapons borrowed from Groot, a Navy SEAL, shooting at the hull of her boat as it sets sail - a sure way to any woman’s heart. Then he attempts to track down and capture a Sasquatch with help from Romp, hoping such an impressive feat will lure Gillian back into his arms. He fails miserably, of course. He then drops in on an old girlfriend in Seattle who is convinced both that she’s an alien abductee and that UFOs will appear just outside the city at midnight on the very day he shows up on her doorstep. She compels him to come along for the alien visitation, which turns out to be a hoax.

In a Hannah novel, these escapades would represent some kind of quest for transcendence and provide moments of genuine existential angst. In “Busy Monsters’’ they’re present simply for the sake of outrageousness and comedy. And sadly, they’re not that funny. I can’t even buy Homar himself as a parody of misogyny or homophobia, because these qualities are shared by too many other characters, some of them far more sympathetic than he. The ultimate effect of page after page of Homar’s pretentious voice and testosterone-fueled antics is one of exhaustion, not laughter.

That “Busy Monsters’’ compelled me to think along these lines is in itself a huge problem. While reading, there’s nothing wrong with drawing parallels to other writers and noting the influences. But at certain points that was all I was doing. When a midget is introduced in the Pacific Northwest interlude, my first thought was to wonder whether his presence was a nod to the dwarf in Carson McCullers’s “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.’’ The sort of book that “Busy Monsters’’ was intended to be should completely absorb the reader, so that he or she suspends disbelief and accepts the absurdity on its own terms. I was never able to do that.

Kevin O’Kelly is a regular reviewer for the Globe. He can be reached at rkokelly@gmail.com.

BUSY MONSTERS

By William Giraldi

Norton, 282 pp., $24.95