A stoner questions everything in life after being hired at an eccentric housing development in California.
Avitabile (A Rum Truck, 2013) begins his latest novel with what’s either an existential polemic or a simple question: “Do you know why you’re here?” Luke Balena, a well-meaning, if crass and lazy, stoner who grew up in Carlsbad, receives an invitation in the mail to Malibu Oaks, an exclusive enclave for the super-rich that’s desperate for new hires to help maintain its control. (Residents renting their homes on Airbnb have begun to question the all-important owners’ fees.) The strange job interview features questions like “What is Kanye West?” (Possible answers include: “Egotist,” “Too Black,” or “Trustworthy.”) Even though he’s unsure of how well he performed, Luke is offered the job of “investigator” and told that he will be helping a mysterious organization called “The Board” keep track of residents who might be partying too hard and abusing their properties. He soon befriends the affable Wolf, a man employed as a “happy” (someone responsible for walking around and projecting positivity at all times to make Malibu Oaks more appealing). Both of them often find they aren’t needed for these new positions and instead pass the days drinking, skydiving, or learning the consequences of crossing The Board’s “No Trespassing” signs. But Luke’s personal routine of dispensaries and hallucinations gets its biggest shock from a charming woman named Amy. At times, the book’s oddities, such as Wolf’s circular explanation that his job is having the day off, approach those by such masters of the uncanny as Haruki Murakami. But too often, the strangeness feels unsure of itself. There is a constant, unresolved tension between whether Luke’s narration is a goofy, marijuana-fueled perspective on plausible events or if readers have entered a completely separate, off-kilter reality. Avitabile is at his best when he chooses to be unapologetically surreal about Luke’s crude humor that’s riddled with pop-culture references. The author doesn’t pull it off consistently, but when he does, plenty of intriguing things to investigate present themselves at Malibu Oaks.
A clever and inventive tale that at times fails to realize its whimsical potential.