Review by James Tierney


Scrooge stared back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude… "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city.
                                             Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Every now and then the stunted adolescent experience of the occasional self-styled European intellectual will manifest itself in a dismissive and often petulant, even embarrassingly uninformed, one-off shrug of a commentary expressing his or her own ignorance of or inability to appreciate the real complexities of the many American cultures and cults, literary, political, popular or otherwise. The shallowness of the premises makes even sympathetic conclusions too bitter a pill for the native to swallow, and the most far gone of ex-patriots may discover in such a moment a suppressed chauvinism lurching up half dead from the spleen. Lou Rowan, American man, has, on the other hand, written a novel that far more than dismissing his nation's cultural deposits, dumps the litter box at our feet just as if to say, "Can you smell it now?" My Last Days, in spite of betraying a petty Continental distaste for sport, comes by this critique along a more hard-won route than that of the casual euro-pundit, a journey best characterized as over-informed. And the burden of the over-informed, I think, is rapturous satire.

Like someone who has been in deep cover for a long time, Rowan speaks the language of the corporate world, that is to say the language of the political world, the art world, Hollywood, major American poetry, and the corporate world, better than its inventors. He knows the syntax, he's got the speed, and he has mastered a startling number of permutations of the prefabricated phrasal components that supply the finite lexicon of the players, the bricks of their narrow bricolage. And who better to see through this wall and shove it off the edge of the planet than that hapless undercover journalist, Superman, the unsuspecting vessel of innocence Rowan has chosen to make his critique. Poor Superman.

Spurred to the autobiographical act by his publicist, the man of steel (and glass, we discover), has decided to take a closer look at his role in the society, and how he came to be there. He begins, in Kansas, as a sort of dim-witted Saposcat on the farm, and ends in the same place, but this time as a fugitive Clark Kent, adrift in remoter regions with his radicalized sidekick, James, ducking and covering in the high grasses from what we can only imagine is a rather worked-up Department of Homeland Security. What happens in between is a New York City mash-up of star culture success stories, generally enabled by the heroic efforts of Superman's naive sense of justice, set alongside a few downers in the outer boroughs. These, Superman has some difficulty getting his head around, as strength, the power of flight, and x-ray vision don't seem to fit the bill.

Rowan, who was once a student of Zukofsky and is now the editor of the distinguished Golden Handcuffs Review, is also retired from a career located vaguely within the complex of Wall Street finance, whatever and all that "Wall Street finance" may mean. His encapsulation and subsequent manipulation of the knowledge he acquired while ensconced not only on Wall Street but within its various adjunct New York societies has produced this breathless, unchecked 120-page maximalist economic satire. Superman aside, as Rowan's riffs periodically push him, the novel, with great economy, moves through the various strata of the culture. It begins, innocently enough, as all Americans do, with the personal struggle, then on up to the tribal, the local, the regional, national and finally the neo-colonial worldwide enterprise of our national politics, culture and language. "Eviscerating" may be too easy a word here, unless one considers that in this case it would be meant no more metaphorically than is the book's staging of the attempted rape of Lois Lane by two rather recognizable poets of national standing. It is a cutting, bloody book, as the rather ominous cover art foreshadows and the light, swift tone occasionally belies. The truly funny swoons of mock-ecstasy in earlier passages concerning the Broadway musical hit "Starved Into Happiness," and the dry ironies of the remarkable rise of media mogul Rupert Murd, and the hilarious dismissal by Mayor Hussel of his grimly inadequate son give way eventually to the far more noxious swoons of the final paragraphs detailing a dystopic wonder of television programming that may while you have been reading this already have surpassed this most recent attempt to satirize it.

Rowan is right, as he does here and in his short-story collection Sweet Potatoes, to locate much of the political and general perversity of this country in its eternally adolescent sexual psyche. Clark Kent's own development spotlights a point where he must make the false choice often presented to youngsters as to whether he shall be celibate or promiscuous. In My Last Days the point is rather roundly made that ours is a nation dominated by grown men who alternately claim to have never had an erection and to have had one now for sixteen hours straight, openly flaunting their endowment in office. Top-shelf marketing typically has its cake and eats it too. Many of Rowan's adult characters are outfitted, some more sympathetically than others, with this same nagging undercurrent of brimming adolescent perversity, of a confused, vacated soul empty at the center and obscured in a dustcloud of self-important activity. The question of disastrous conflict is reduced to when and where, which is what gives Rowan's narratives their particular uneasiness.

There are a growing number of writers out there who it seems are no longer able to finesse their opposition to the state of not only the state, but of the predominating literary and art cultures: to the state of perception itself. Chiasmus Press, publisher of My Last Days, and other small presses go very far out of their way to publish a few of them. It is all too easy to see the origins of the complaint, which emphasize a holisitic continuum between the different components of and variety of forces acting on the larger cultures. The self-censorship, or self-narrowing of the artistic imagination in America at some point achieved a threshold where one is now able to easily imagine that every viable enactor in art, science and thought is finally reduced (it may take some years) to a good solid position, with benefits, in a successful marketing firm, so-called or not. Some people see this as a desirable progression, and some people do not. My Last Days is not the quiet, rational insanity of Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," but, looking in the same harrowing direction, it is more the flamboyantly overt Swiftian humor of outrage. In the end it is a small, too-fine-a-point-on-it spear chucked at a giant helium balloon bobbing and weaving its way down Madison Avenue.

Aside from the fact that humor is always an indication of hope, it is fair to say that My Last Days is a doggedly pessimistic, even cynical book, but one that is so ripe the reader is surprised to have encountered it only now. It puts into relief the absence of such open, deep satire from available American fiction, the sort of thing that dredges the dark bottom sludge of the bent psychology behind some of the most successful drivers of our currently exported cultural heritage. In this sense, it is tellingly reminiscent of moments in Soviet-era eastern European satires like Gombrowicz's and Konwicki's, Hasek's and Hrabal's. Like these, My Last Days is not speculative or fantastic fiction, it's historical. It's all true. You have probably already visited the Museum of Acceptable Modern Art and "Starved Into Happiness" is on the bus and rolling toward your local performing arts center this very evening. And they're both going to cost you more than this book.

December 19, 2007