The Short Version: Joe, a not-too-great vacuum salesman, is drifting. He’s not quite sure what comes next, after a particularly unsuccessful stint in Florida. Then, during a characteristically involved masturbatory fantasy, he comes up with an idea that will revolutionize the modern workplace: the ‘lightning rod’. Men with pent up sexual energy, instead of sexually harassing their coworkers, can get literal release by anonymously having sex with a lightning rod. Joe becomes rich and (in)famous. Nothing else happens.
The Review: The overwhelming feeling when I started this book – a feeling that continued and even intensified as the book went on – was that it was not a novel. It was an hour-long documentary from TLC or The Discovery Channel written into a book. Sure, this analogy doesn’t quite work – the lack of oral history/direct interviews is the biggest flaw – but when you think about it, it’s surprisingly close. There’s something clinical and presentational about the book – and that does not necessarily equate to an engaging read.
It certainly zips by, that’s for sure. But I found myself starting to skim a bit towards the end – not skim, per se, but I found my attention held by only the narrowest thread. I was, to continue my earlier metaphor, itching to change the channel. It’s an hour-long tv show that’s really only 42 minutes with commercials that feels like it could’ve been a half-hour no-commercials special.
For one thing, the tone. The tone is so flat and so clinical… and I have to admit, I wonder if this was somewhat on purpose. Our main character, an Everyman for sure, gets constantly caught up in his fantasies. Not caught up in the good way, of finding them engrossingly intense, but in the bad way of starting to wonder about the realities and the people and what-not. He finds himself considering the problems and quirks of his constructed fantasies to the point of making them boring. That is, surprisingly, what happens here. This book, I have to say it, is boring. For such a loaded and saucy idea, it sure seems pretty rote to me. The funniest moments come when the narratorial voice describes the act of intercourse with a lightning rod in various, hilarious ways. You know, the goofy innuendos and entendres people use. Always funny.
Sadly, that’s really it. The whole book aspires to be a satire, aspires to be funny like Mel Brooks funny, but it never gets anywhere near that level. The thing about satire is that you have to sell it. You have to be the salesman that Joe only moderately is – and that Ms. DeWitt certainly is not. This book feels like it has the desire to be our generation’s A Modest Proposal but instead it falls far short of the mark. And that’s a shame because there’s a hell of a lot of serious stuff to talk about here. Sexual harassment, political correctness, hucksters, the “American Dream”, our corporate environments in general… it’s all here and it’s all ripe for the picking. So why does this book feel so damn clinical and drained of any actual life?
There’s also not much in the way of plot. Or action. I mean, sure, there is: Joe develops lightning rods, tries to sell them, makes them better, makes millions! ……..no twists. No surprises. Not a goddamn bump in the road. Everything just happens and that’s just great and we just move along and that’s that. The stakes are non-existent and as a result we don’t give a flying fuck about anyone in this book. Maybe we’re not supposed to – but if you don’t give me characters to care about or a plot to get interested in and you write in a white-walls-at-the-hospital clean way, what the hell is supposed to engage me? Your ideas? Ideas alone do not a good novel make.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. Ultimately, I can’t see why this book got the press it did. How it made the ToB this year. Why people are, in fact, looking at it as a masterwork of satire. It isn’t bad, by any stretch: it’s a quick read and it has humor and makes you think a bit. But the writing is so flat and boring, the plotting so lazy, the pacing so odd that I honestly couldn’t care less. I was happy to have done with it, even though I only started it like 44 hours ago. Take the ideas and really run with them? Mash this book with Nicholson Baker’s smutty House of Holes? Then let’s talk. But being titillating in your ideas is not – nor should it be – enough to actually shock or captivate or engage someone. You’ve gotta bring more than the idea to the table – you need the execution. Even Joe could tell you that.