After Daniel Weinberg and his son, Herbert, scour their local dump for five thousand smoke detectors—which collectively contain enough of the ingredient Americium-241 to build a nuclear bomb—King Daniel (a self-conferred title) declares the independence of his suburban home (“Weinbergia”) from Long Island and the rest of the United States. He’s had enough of the U.S. and its unnecessary wars and he wants to exert some control over his own destiny. Also, he’s somewhat aimless and heading toward crazy.
Our narrator, Prince Herbert, possesses the ability to read minds, including yours—he knows what the reader is thinking—and will eventually harness this power to help his father’s roster of future minions. Herbert’s a tremendous asset to the cessation cause, even if no one quite understands what he’s capable of. “There wasn’t a secret in the world I couldn’t dig out of someone’s brain,” he says. Clearly it’s not quite our world he’s talking about. (When it comes to the Americium, however, the notion isn’t entirely far-fetched: when terrorist Dhiren Barot was arrested in 2004, one of his plans involved building a bomb out of ten thousand smoke detectors.)
Under Weinbergia’s modest roof, which is protected by a nuclear-powered garden gnome ready to set off a one-megaton explosion on the front lawn, King Daniel successfully exploits the media—a half-hostage, half-willing weatherman stays put because he smells a good story—to become a beacon of hope. Flocks of dazed admirers start knocking at his country’s door, bearing gifts and asking for guidance. He admits them all. He’s an inclusive king who’s looking for a bit of company to impress with his omelet-making skills. Herbert helps his household stay a step ahead of the military, which seems genuinely stumped about how to proceed. He chooses the bluebird as Weinbergia’s national bird because “nobody is going to shoot a kid who says he likes bluebirds. I double-checked the brains of everyone outside on the front lines.”
Mamatas has created a frenzied, extremely funny mishmash of post-9/11 cultural satire and coming-of-age tale. Borders are artificial at best, the book suggests, and following high-profile leaders is just an easy way of replacing Mommy and Daddy. Criticizing life in the United States isn’t a new game, but Mamatas’s sometime-in-the-near-future account questions whether living here is anything more than assisted suicide, killing ourselves as a result of someone else’s bad decisions.The novel lashes out against determinism, featuring a simple plan that begets further simple plans, involving disillusioned people, harebrained schemes to get provisions, and a sympathetic convenience store called Qool Mart. The book may be politically savvy, but it’s still fantasy.
Nobody is more surprised by his continued success and popularity than King Daniel Weinberg. He is living out the story of his life without any conceivable outline while challenging the status quo without much hope of winning. Yet somehow he persists and plainly wonders whether things have changed because of his efforts. It could be argued that Mamatas suggests taking action without forethought to the consequences of one’s missteps. Yet in a time when everything seems to be tightly wrapped up in a lost cause, his unsophisticated battle plan—do something—is both naïve and refreshing. There is a nothing-to-lose approach here, and, in Under My Roof, things do change.