EXTRAVAGANZA by Gordon Lish

EXTRAVAGANZA

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Considering the lack of serious thought that's gone into Lish's latest bit of fictional legerdemain, it should come as no surprise that this slight book follows so soon after Mourners at the Door (1988), a collection of prose bits that exploits the same subjects: sex, bowel movements, and anti-Semitism. Here, literary experimentalism barely conceals meaninglessness and purposelessness--though clearly this fetid concoct ion is intended to disturb readers. Lish revives the burlesque act of Smith and Dale, who perform endless variations on their repertoire of jokes. Their low comedy--"two 'old' men nattering at each other in 'accents'" --is interrupted by meta-fictional commentary that includes not a little Lishian self-aggrandizement, and lots of cosmic speculation. The jokes begin as more or less typical shtick, Jewish humor told with heavy Yiddish inflections. Mostly situational, the skits find Dale posing as a doctor, and Smith as his comic foil. There's a good-news/bad-news joke with a punchline involving "shtupping" the nurse with the nice "tush and tsitselehs." In routine, Smith plays a 96-year-old caddy; in another, a tailor; and elsewhere he auditions for Hamlet. Lish's Jews haggle over prices, act chintzy, and occasionally talk to God. But it doesn't take long before these hoary jokes take a bizarre turn, and become increasingly violent, some ending with decapitation, and others with non sequiturs. Within the absurdist patter lurks a pathology. A talking herring utters vile anti-Semitic remarks; an elaborate skit involves anal penetration of Smith; and later Dr. Dale fellates the Almighty. There are routines about the stupid goyim and their holidays; there are some fractured Mother Goose bits; there is even a no-tickee-no-shirtee joke. Throughout, Lish returns to a riddle: "What is it which when it wriggles its toes it goes ding?" Whether Smith ever answers satisfactorily is unclear since the book dribbles off into incoherence. Not quite Leo Rosten and hardly Samuel Beckett, this appalling work of fiction seems to be Lish's final bad joke--the ultimate comment on his compendium of bad jokes.

Pub Date: March 27th, 1989
ISBN: 399-13417-4
Publisher: Putnam
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