A motley assemblage of oddballs, frat boys, and pharmacological explorers delve deeply into love, sex, drugs, and philosophy in this debut novel.
Ostensibly, this novel tells the story of Stranger, a lovesick, drunken, acid-freak college student, but author Schmeling takes the device of interior monologue to a new level, continually escaping the confines of simple narrative in the service of puns, wordplay, ontology, epistemology, name-dropping, polemics, and all-out, guns-blazing alliteration: “The film flickered in flits and flashes of fabulous light.” As a big-man-on-campus fraternity brother, Stranger swaggers appropriately, but he’s really using alcohol, sex (he admits that he’s never had sex sober), drugs, and Homeric bull sessions with fellow misfits Jester, Dudemeister, and Variable to mask his innate insecurity and anxiety. He lives in a generic frat house at an unnamed school, where people continually come and go, absorbing booze, psychedelics, and assorted other drugs—sometimes passing out, sometimes vomiting. All the while, the characters hold forth on topics from the intellectual to the inane before exiting to carry on their merry-prankster existences elsewhere. Stranger is shown to be ambivalent about his place in the world, partially due to the fact that he comes from a mixed-race background. His love for Gunny, a woman with a fragile psyche who’s involved with another man, develops as the two find that they can honestly communicate with each other. Gunny reveals to Stranger that she cuts herself, and after a good deal of procrastination, he reveals his feelings for her. For Gunny, however, the relationship will always be platonic, which causes Stranger to vacillate between hostility and submissiveness.
Readers will need to break out their dictionaries, Who’s Whos, books on history, philosophy, and political science, and any other reference materials they can get their hands on for this dense, stream-of-consciousness, James Joyce–meets–William S. Burroughs roller-coaster ride. There isn’t much plot, but like Honoré de Balzac, Schmeling seems to know everything there is to know about every subject he touches on; he has no trouble expounding at length on diverse fields from anthropology to zoology. His digressions, which effectively comprise the bulk of the book, sound off on a wide range of subjects, including popular music, race relations, Trumpism, romantic love, animal rights, economics, drug use, and the far reaches of the multiverse. The author’s way with words is witty, wild, subtle, and sonorous, with nearly every sentence seeming to blast references like shrapnel in all directions. His numerous bons mots are clever and insightful: “Secrets. We tell them when we have the feeling someone already knows.” Schmeling makes skillful use of allusion, as in this biblical reference: “whole crowds devouring red herrings and loaves, but return to the people what is the people’s.” He also uses offbeat literary devices, including an interesting trick to emphasize his words and slow his readers down: “That. She. Accused. One. Of. The. Warrior’s. Brothers. Too. Maybe. He. Did. It.”
An intense book for those who love a literary puzzle—difficult to read but equally difficult to forget.