SIDE EFFECTS by Harvey Jacobs
Kirkus Star


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The culture of pharmaceutical overkill is the subject—and target—of this high-energy fifth novel from the little-known comic surrealist whose best books (American Goliath, 1998, etc.) rival the late 20th-century antic fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Stanley Elkin.

Its protagonist—and victim—is Simon Apple, whose uniquely embattled life (shaped by the unforeseen effects of prescribed medications) unrolls before him when he’s on death row awaiting execution for a “murder” suspiciously linked to the very pharmaceutical company responsible for Simon’s alarming bodily transformations. As Jacobs juxtaposes the story of Simon’s life with details of his incarceration, the worst excesses of corporate greed and malfeasance, the cult of fame and the danger zones of sex and commitment are skewered with a ferocious energy that recalls the genial albeit pitch-black madness of Catch-22 and the weirdly wonderful new science of H.G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay. As Simon is successively afflicted with “explosive growth,” the possession of (first) antlers then gills, penile contraction and expansion, electronically mischievous flatulence and other arcane dysfunctions, his usefulness as poster boy for corporate behemoth Regis Pharmaceuticals is pronounced dead. And CEO Regis Van Clay, an egomaniacal masochist of hilariously epic dimensions, schemes to erase the blot on his company’s escutcheon that perpetually ailing Simon has become. At times this novel’s ebullient particulars threaten to overwhelm the reader, but beating beneath its manic surface (like Simon’s unstoppable heart) is a brilliant expressionistic portrayal of an all-too-human sufferer “doomed to live life at arm’s length, a stranger to everyone including himself.” Despite numerous antecedents and influences—besides those aforementioned, there are echoes of Richard Condon, S.J. Perelman, James Purdy’s bizarre bildungsroman Malcolm and Katherine Dunn’s even more bizarre masterpiece Geek Love—Jacobs’s monstrous satire is a truly original work.

A great comic novel and a huge leap forward for one of America’s most underrated and accomplished writers.

Pub Date: Feb. 14th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-96-341851-7
Page count: 392pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2009