Review: BUSY MONSTERS – William Giraldi [Vol. 4, #20]

September 23, 2011 — Leave a comment

 

A Review of

Busy Monsters: A Novel
William Giraldi.
Hardback: Norton, 2011.
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Reviewed by Greg Schreur.

Normally I avoid books that include any of the following in their cast of characters: kraken, Sasquatch, space aliens, or Asiatic sex slaves. Busy Monsters, according to the book description, has all of them. Normally I want to be so immersed in the reading experience that I am not interrupted by moments of skepticism. Busy Monsters almost begs you to stop and consider. But then again, William Giraldi’s engaging, smart, and readable first novel is anything but normal.

The basic plot follows Charlie Homar as he alternately tries to win back the love of his departed fiancée Gillian while other times seeks to move on into an uncertain future without her. Pushing him toward the latter—while loyally supporting Charlie’s longing—is longtime friend and sometime foil, Groot, who is also a lethal Navy SEAL. Groot’s guidance proves helpful in a number of situations, including Charlie’s determination to kill Gillian’s ex-boyfriend. For other missions, Groot is on duty in Afghanistan or under firm orders from his mother to pick up an ice-cream cake for his father’s birthday party.

Groot’s duality as assassin/mama’s boy is emblematic of the duality that is present throughout the novel. To begin with, Charlie, the narrator of Busy Monsters, is a memoirist. A clear conflict of interests, you might say. Yet because each of Charlie’s misadventures becomes a part of his serialized memoirs, Giraldi is onto something different altogether.

On one level, the novel is a muddling of the distinctions between fiction and history, overlapping the two throughout. Many characters know all about Charlie’s experiences, having read about them in the pages of New Nation Weekly. Essentially, they are reading the story as we do. At other times characters return and challenge Charlie’s retellings or even his right to do so.

Here is a scene that typifies the sort of play between Charlie and the other characters, between fiction and memoir, between what-really-happened and the Truth. Charlie is speaking with Romp, an oversexed Bigfoot hunter, who it turns out has read Charlie’s memoirs:

“Oh, yeah,” he said, pulling on his clothes, “I read that scene. Didn’t believe a word of it.”

“Huh? Why not? Why the hell not? It’s the truth.”

“Hey,” he said, “don’t get mad, little partner. I’m just saying. Some scenes are more convincing than others. It being true don’t make it convincing. Didn’t you learn that in Intro to Creative Writing?”

Dialogue is another recurring sticking point. “Nobody talks like that,” one character tells him. “All your characters sound the same,” another ones says, which means they sound like Charlie himself, who, shall we say, has a singularly distinguishable voice. Here is typical Charlie, verbose and cynical, along for a ride with some UFO hunters:

The day’s oven had died and now the temperature smiled at just under seventy degrees; rappelling down from the truck’s door, I inhaled that pristine air and almost hoped for a spacecraft to come hold a convivium, obliterate the silence between us.

Who talks like that, indeed? Of course, the reader who can muddle through such passages and hear the voice as both comedic and psychologically revealing should enjoy Charlie’s literary company. An interesting possible assignment to potential readers: keep track of the number of ways Charlie describes sleep.

All this invites us the readers to challenge the book’s believability: is Charlie telling us the whole truth and nothing but—did everything really happen that way?  Several plot elements are admittedly quite far-fetched. Charlie himself regularly admits his readers won’t believe his stories. But then again, it is fiction; none of it happened. It’s as if Giraldi is daring us to believe all of this nonsense and then rubbing our noses in it. What will you believe? What should you believe?

On this subject of belief, one more note about the novel’s dualities. I don’t know that religion is intended to be a significant part of the novel (although it is interesting to note that Giraldi mentions both monsters like Sasquatch and being raised by lukewarm Catholic parents in an essay in The Believer), but Charlie occasionally invokes Christianity (as well as expressing a fondness for poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins).

Speaking in the first pages of his intent to kill Gillian’s ex-boyfriend, he mentions, “Coercing him into kindness, Christian or otherwise, had already failed—large.” Later on, Charlie seeks the advice of his priest, who gives him some surprising advice—only to return later and deny having provided such counsel.

Charlie further justifies his decision: “Having to silence a single man for the sake of solace does not make one homicidal. Of course I am a Christian and know the program, but love and sex have their own sacred creeds and they burn every bit as much as the ten laws of the Lord.” Maybe. Maybe not. The point is, just because Charlie says so, doesn’t mean it is so: hearing—unlike seeing, as the saying goes—does not mean believing.

When someone announces themselves as a Christian, we have certain expectations and assumptions. When a book jacket describes a book, we also expect and assume. This is necessary, but dangerous, especially when we are lulled into complacency or dulled by naiveté. Skepticism and cynicism have their place. Fortunately, we have the occasional novel to remind us.

The book’s title obviously refers to the extraterrestrial and cryptozoological creatures that are the subjects of so many infamous chases, but it also refers to the chasers, and not just those crazed hunters seeking legendary prey. Rather, Charlie’s tales serve as proof that we all have our demons.

In the end, Busy Monsters reminds us that nearly every chase has an element of escape. And while none of it really happened, nearly all of it is True.

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