Maine (The Book of Samson, 2006, etc.) falls short of his usual high standard in his fourth fictional riff on a well-known tale: in this case, an island monster in love with a buxom blonde.
K. is 40 feet tall with antennae, butterfly wings, feathers sprouting from his chest, fur covering his body, reptilian skin on his hands and feet. This nightmare collection of parts probably resulted from nuclear testing conducted in the 1940s, but the natives on K.’s South Pacific island have a creation myth to explain his presence, and once a year they sacrifice a maiden to appease him. The young women all die, but it’s not really his fault. Sometimes they fall from his treetop nest; sometimes they’re scooped up by a pterodactyl-type beast; sometimes they run away and are killed by the other weird jungle creatures. K. is neither predator nor prey, just a mindless vegetarian roaming around the jungle without much of what we would call consciousness. His life and perhaps his consciousness are altered when a group of adventurers including Billy, Johnny and his wife Betty land on the island. Soon enough, K. is restrained on a ship bound for America, where he will star in Billy’s traveling roadshow. Maine’s insightful, occasionally brilliant previous novels vivified the psychology and moral agenda of biblical characters such as Adam and Eve (Fallen, 2005) to create portraits marked by depth and originality. But his reinterpretation of King Kong seems oddly redundant: K. has little motivation but instinct, no inner life to reflect on, no outrage or sadness at his captivity. Throughout the novel, historical snapshots of Palestinians fleeing Israelis or dictators seizing control with the help of a familiar superpower seek to undermine the intentional campiness of the monster plot, but the allusions are too broad to achieve the tone of subtle wit and dread the author seems to intend.
A generally inspired writer fumbles with this take on monsters and manmade 20th-century mayhem.