Ulysses, Midnight Cowboy, and Lenny Bruce’s comedy were all labeled obscene until enough time had passed that wider audiences began to see the works as brilliant. I wonder if the same will hold true of Alexander Theroux’s new novel. It is a pissed-off book, and reading its six hundred pages is as much fun as a hot August road trip with Don Imus, Ann Coulter, and Andrew Dice Clay. Yet it is also a remarkable achievement, a bombastic, squirm-inducing, and belief-rattling satire on political correctness shown through the lens of a sexless love story between two of the most unlovable (if not repulsive) characters in recent American letters. It takes an author like Theroux, who is as established as he is antiestablishment, to pull off a novel that for many other authors would be career suicide.
The third-person narrative revolves around the staff of a Boston-based magazine called Quink and rarely strays far from Eugene Eyestones, a columnist whose fact-laden essays and notes on topics related to love appear in the book at length. Eyestones’s provocative generalizations about women are often inspired by his on-again, off-again relationship with Laura Warholic, the ex-wife of the magazine’s editor.
The novel repeatedly attempts to one-up itself in creating unflattering portraits of Laura Warholic, its hero, describing her as “a homely, longshanked, bony, spindle-nosed slattern of crucial need, low hopes, impoverished account, and undisguised but pathetic greed who had spent most of her years since college doing nothing but drifting and looking for a man to support her.” She loses interest in her writing and art projects, sleeps with her landlord and rock musicians, and owes her ex-husband money. Perhaps her most compelling feature is her last name (her husband’s, actually) with its suggestions of war, alcoholic, and Andy Warhol, not to mention numerous other naughty linguistic variations.
Warholic has a relatively small cast of characters who engage in a serial lambasting of one another, drag out long anti-Semitic tirades, and reinforce the worst contemporary African American and homosexual stereotypes. Their only point of agreement is how much they detest Laura Warholic. But while Eyestones loathes Laura as much as anyone, he might just love her too. “Was he involved with her or not?” Theroux writes. “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.”Throughout the narrative, the brooding Eyestones delivers Asperger’sfueled dialogue riddled with obscure facts about Marilyn Monroe, silent films, jazz 78s, sexual practices from other cultures, and forgotten moments in history. He is also a self-taught authority on crows. He ridicules Laura for her devotion to the band Cheap Trick. In turn, she rails against his offbeat obsessions. It must be love.
The beauty of Laura Warholic is that Theroux pulls it off. Its charms are its perverse humor— which cannot be taken as seriously as the book takes itself—its ability to capture its characters at their worst, and Theroux’s encyclopedic, kitchen-sink writing style. It’s hot-button literature, an argumentative and smug know-it-all of a book; it makes you want to talk back to it, hurl it out the window, and deny the plausibility of the cultural decadence it depicts. It treads on ground where authors and readers are reluctant to go, and it is bad company worth keeping.