Images of the Marquis de Sade’s bedchamber and Andy Warhol’s Factory will undoubtedly assail readers of this defiantly outré third novel by Gooch, the biographer of Frank O’Hara (City Poet, 1993) and author of such in-your-face fiction as The Golden Age of Promiscuity (1996).
The narrator is a nameless youth from a small Pennsylvania town who finds an objective correlative for his compulsive self-abasement in a Scranton museum’s “sacred voodoo chamber” exhibit. Abused and exploited by schoolmates and others (to whom he is, simply, “Zombie”), he leaves his scandalized, sorrowful parents, and—in a rather blatant imitation of James Purdy’s famous first novel, Malcolm—moves on to New York City. Thereafter, the story becomes a series of searches for his true “master” and encounters with unconventional reality instructors and benefactors: a drug-addicted physician who insists he be addressed as “Sir Edward,” a muscle-bound TV talk-show impresario (“Control Freak”), the Son of God Himself (as worshipped by “the Jesus Men,” who hold a rally in Washington’s RFK Stadium), genuine-article “zombie masters” met during a Haitian visit, and, after Zombie’s return to Manhattan, miscellaneous denizens of the lurid “club Crypt,” where people from his past mysteriously appear. (Perhaps—though Gooch doesn’t spell this out—he’s seeing his life pass before him, just as he’s about to leave it.) The novel isn’t nearly as awful as it sounds: Gooch writes crisp, surprisingly evocative straightforward sentences, and has found a resonant, troubling metaphor for the kind of passivity and self-loathing capable of shading into the destructive recesses of sadomasochism. If you like Anne Tyler and Jan Karon, you may want to pass on Zombie 00. Still, this is, in its uniquely empathetic and perceptive way, really a rather successful exploration of a hapless life lived on the psychosexual razor’s edge.
The whips-and-chains crowd will love it. For others: caveat emptor.