The video of a Saint Bernard using a computer goes viral and brings a media circus to Peculiar, Missouri, in Wallace’s debut novel.
This story pokes fun at social media saturation, misplaced religious fervor, and the falseness of “reality” programming. Its narrator is retired doctor Ned Belton, who lives with his faithful canine companion, Samuel Langhorne “Clem” Clemens, as well as the memory of his beloved late wife, Mary. Every day, Ned walks to Brownie’s Cafe to meet three lifelong friends— Frank, Bill, and Skeeter—for a meal and a healthy dose of good-natured ribbing. Ned makes an off-the-cuff joke about his dog recommending an oil company’s stock, which is later misprinted in the newspaper. Skeeter uploads a video of Clem at a computer, which goes viral. When the oil stock skyrockets in price, the video captures the world’s attention and leads to the arrival of the novel’s two frightening antagonists: mentally unstable Securities and Exchange Commission Special Agent Norman McStone, who believes that Ned is guilty of insider training, and charismatic cult leader Father Jones, whose scandalous behavior includes sexual depravity and drug trafficking. As Bill remarks: “Ned, you are at the vortex of the confluence of a psychotic and a sociopath.” Wallace successfully conveys the sense of a small town under siege, and readers will feel the crush of the seemingly endless influx of obnoxious outsiders. Hysteria mounts as Father Jones whips his flock into a frenzy of worship centered on Clem: “An old woman started speaking in her version of tongues. She sounded like a Frenchman in a porno movie.” Ned’s friends spring into action and come to his assistance, devising an intricate plan to protect Clem from his followers, who, after all, are interfering with the hard-earned, if routine, pleasures of Ned’s retirement. Readers may be let down when the truth behind the viral video is finally revealed. Nevertheless, Wallace ends the novel with a nice touch, as a character that’s notably absent throughout the text appears at last to join the party of four at Brownie’s Cafe.
Suitable for fans of chaotic, surreal fiction.