An offbeat jeremiad inspired by America’s cultural decline.
For his seventh work of fiction, White (Requiem, 2001, etc.) borrows the name of his protagonist, Hans Castorp, from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. Like the other Hans, this one is visiting his cousin at a health facility, but otherwise there’s little resemblance between Mann’s eloquent confrontations and White’s scattershot satirical jabs. Hans is 22 and from Downstate, Illinois. A recent graduate, he has his first job lined up but, at his aunt’s urging, is checking on his cousin Ricky, who’s been at the Elixir, a “recovery spa” in central Illinois, for a long time. Realism gives way to surrealism as Ricky screams obscenities at a placid taxi driver and insists on giving Hans a revolver. There’s nothing grand about the spa: It looks like a strip mall of disused commercial buildings, set in a dreary landscape of slag heaps and toxic lakes, with foul winds blowing through. Hans is housed in a former Mr. Donut, where the previous occupant had been a young woman who’d raped her intoxicated father. What follows is a patchwork of narrative and monologues by such Elixir notables as Mayor Jesse, who is convinced someone has borrowed his genitals, and Professor Feeling, an aging hippie who refers to himself alternately as a Toxic Adult Child and the future Revlon Lama. Hans makes one friend, Cecile, an older woman with an impressive cleavage, but, timid virgin that he is, rejects her when she hugs him. White directs broadsides at the fast-food industry and academic jargon, among other things, but primarily he debunks the nuclear family, awash in alcohol, centered on boozy fathers in thrall to television (an old target of White’s). In the process, he neglects Hans’s predicament (is he trapped, or simply assimilating?) and fails to pursue other narrative leads (that revolver, say, or the exotic LaCrema, who leaves phone messages but never materializes).
Undisciplined work from a writer who becomes tangled up in his own obsessions.