A spirit—too scabrous to be completely holy—walks the earth weighing human souls in this florid fantasia.
Maffei’s nameless protagonist is a disembodied being who slips in and out of minds unnoticed, savoring or recoiling at whatever he finds. In letters to a book publisher named Ms. Sylvestri, he reports his impressions of the consciousnesses he samples—from a teenager whose ear-splitting music is “a screamworld of life’s-end chaos” to a man whose nose-picking is “as sensual, almost, as man’s penetrating taking of a woman”—and offers broader observations on human nature. He is particularly taken with sexuality, and pens odes to it that are sometimes romantic (“Oh, the sudden and alive spark of one man, one woman, joined at last, the joyous clasping together, two gods embodied in one bright flame”) and sometimes earthy (“You’ve got something I want! says man to woman, his eyes on her breasts, his hands on her sweet little ass as he sinks down on his knees.”) But he is also concerned with racism and sexism, particularly the persecution he feels whites and men suffer at the hands of blacks and women. The spirit’s soliloquies intertwine with captivating short stories about people he encounters, including a homeless alcoholic redeemed by a stray dog, a Hollywood producer and his resentful boy-toy, and an affectionate but troubled older couple at an amusement park. These strands unite when the spirit borrows a comatose man’s body and lures the other characters to an uncanny seminar at which he strips bare their souls in harrowing revelations. Maffei tells this tale in several hit-and-miss registers. His well-crafted narrative vignettes are written in a subtle, fluent prose that’s full of acute observations of character and emotion. The passages in the spirit’s voice are less convincing—declamatory or mystical, straining for big ideas—“Why do your laws so very much favor black racism over white racism?”—that are rather callow. Maffei’s ghost can be tiresome, but his living characters are well worth the read.
An absorbing, if uneven, mix of beguiling magical realism and bombastic social commentary.