I think I got into Jack Pendarvis sort of randomly—if I remember right, I was in Housing Works, browsing the (illegal, but whatever) advance reading copy shelves, and found his first book and read the first story, “Sex Devil,” and I was as hooked on him as I’d been on anybody in awhile.
If you don’t know who Jack Pendarvis is it’s because you haven’t been reading the Oxford American or Paste or The Believer often enough, or it’s because you somehow missed his “Our Spring Catalog,” which was a story in his first book (The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure) that was also published in the 2006 Pushcart Anthology (and originally in Boulevard, I think)(Chelsea, actually), or it’s because you’re not monitoring the writer other writers write/talk/blurb about, (the back of the new book’s got blurbs from George Saunders and Barry Hannah). There’s a chance you’ve stumbled on Pendarvis’ “blog,” but I’ve got to imagine the readers who find their way to him through that medium still represent a small sum.
He’s got two books of short stories, both from MacAdam/Cage (which, let me just go ahead and admit a total bias here: if all small presses in the country took as inspiration MacAdam/Cage, Greywolf, and New Directions, life would be great and there’d be flowers and lollipops everywhere for everyone all the time), and his latest book is a novel called Awesome, also from MacAdam/Cage. It’s fair to wonder, if you’re a Pendarvis reader and fan (I have to think one sort of leads to the other, causally: if you read him and don’t like him, you’ve got issues), how he could pull off a long-form book after his short stories. His short stories are wild, crazed things, and so funny they can, after multiple readings, still draw, from me anyway, loud laughter. Here’s one of the sections of “Our Spring Catalog,” the Pushcart Prize winner:
I Couldn’t Eat Another Thing
In this luminous collection of sparkling stories, former newspaper columnist Bird makes a stunning fictional debut with a wry look at the state of modern commitment. A lot of the time I’d get to the end of one of the stories and turn a page like, “Huh?” Like, “Where’s the end of it?” Like, “What happened next?” But nothing happened next. You know, those kinds of stories. Luminous.
The story is a collection of eight descriptions of books, all written with a similarly self-aware and -involved tone, and the story’s a scream not just because it takes great shots at the sort of publishing garbage that many of us find pretty repellant (novels and stories that Chabon described in the intro of McSweeney’s 11 as “glistening with epiphanic dew” instead of having stuff actually resolve), but because it takes those shots with a bracing honesty and directness. The overused, hyperbolic sentences fall apart as the story strips off its own skin to reveal the funnier, more true part underneath.
But so back to the idea of how Pendarvis might tackle a novel: how could he do it, right? He writes great short, hilarious stuff, but long stuff? More than a hundred pages? How does it happen?
How it happens in Awesome is that Pendarvis seems to have decided to completely ignore some basic tenets of reality and has made one of the weirdest, most wait, what?-inducing novels I’ve ever read. What you must dispose of, mentally, when getting into Awesome are beliefs like: a vehicle cannot be powered by a giant’s ejaculate; life ends at death; a giant may first fight and, later, carnally know another giant; that the world could come to an end because of a robot (built by a giant) inside of a giant, or that the world could be restored and repopulated by another giant.
Awesome is, top to bottom, an engaging book, sucking the reader in if for no other reason than to see what happens next, and what happens next is, literally, almost always unbelievable. The book’s whole arc centers around a giant named Awesome and his search for treasures, which treasures will, if he secures them all, win him the love of a miss Glorious Jones. Spelled out like that it is, yes, a quest story, and recognizably so. The whole of the book is a very straightforward narrative thing, with elements you’d recognize from any number of books, but it’s all the fantastical elements in the novel that make it so strange and different and, in lots of ways, compelling.
The novel’s a first-person account, from Awesome’s point of view, and here’s a good primer for what’s in store throughout:
Here is a normal day for me.
Look at my handsome nakedness in my big mirror.
My robot ward, Jimmy, is already up and making coffee. I could turn Jimmy into a wife robot if I wanted to. I could stretch him out to giant size and add some female-looking parts and a sluice of some kind where I could deposit my ejaculate. I could give him a different voice and name and put some eyelashes on him. But it wouldn’t seem right.
And with a voice like that, of course, the book gathers much of its comedic steam around Awesome’s hilarious, almost unbearably cocky tone and view (or maybe he’s not cocky, since Awesome is actually capable of everything he says he is). This is also, for me, the only part of the book that ends up lagging at points: Awesome’s voice and view is so dialed up at all times that there’s little time for the reflective, recharging-type moments that fiction routinely offers. Which, I suppose, is just stating the obvious: that Pendarvis is like absolutely no one else, and is brazen in his dismissal of some elements of what we recognize as a ‘novel.’ I go back and forth. (full admission: I’m sort of a too-serious dude, and so stuff that’s eternally jokey can sometimes just make me tired).
What is for sure is that Awesome is the first novel I’ve read in I can’t remember how long (ever?) in which I never once had any idea what would happen next. Authors are usually wonderful little Hansels and Gretels, leaving crumbs through the text to give the reader a sense of what might be coming, and Pendarvis does a little of that, but not much. By and large, for me anyway, each page brought a new event or twist that I couldn’t have seen coming, which, I think, is great praise. If we can acknowledge that books are the result of a certain person’s process of thought; Awesome stands as evidence that Jack Pendarvis has a way of thinking, a whole process of thinking, that’s totally original and his own and unique and startling, and worth paying plenty of attention to. Buy it, read it.