Notch’s tall tale opens in 1910, as two racist 10-year-olds in a Southern town offer rotgut liquor to an elderly African-American man, Erastus Greener, in exchange for stories of his youthful adventures in the Old West. He complies with the letter, if not the spirit, of their demand, by recounting a sprawling fable that reimagines the author Oscar Wilde’s real-life speaking tour through the American West as a slapstick picaresque. Stranded for months in Colorado in 1882 when his train breaks down, Wilde finds himself immured in the squalid mining town of Leadville, living in a saloon and rubbing shoulders with all manner of colorful ruffians. These include a man with Tourette’s syndrome whose uncontrollable bursts of profanity don’t disqualify him from becoming Wilde’s manservant; a derelict Native American man aptly named He-Who-Breaks-Wind; and a coarse buffalo hunter whose vicious, omnidirectional and sometimes quite funny insults make him Wilde’s main rhetorical foil. Then, feminist icon Susan B. Anthony comes into town by stagecoach; she’s a preachy, humorless woman who insists on being addressed by the gender-neutral title “Person Anthony,” and sets about rallying the town’s prostitutes to the cause of female suffrage. This may sound lively, as does a subplot about a psychotic outlaw dispensing Mormon gold, but what mainly happens in the book is a lot of windy dinner-table palaver. This usually pits Wilde’s subtle, ironic repartee (“America is a cosmopolitan land,” he says, upon seeing a Native American drinking in a saloon), which goes way over everyone’s head, against the cussing, farting and braying of the yokels and rogues around him. Occasionally, it lapses into earnest soapboxing about the injustices borne by women and gay men. Notch writes vigorous prose (“The Salt Lake City Kid pulled a revolver from his holster, cocked it, and emptied all six shots into the sign, grouping three inches across, except a single flyer that flew wild. He did not count those. Few shooters did”), and his vivid characters certainly have distinctive voices. But his gross-out humor is so overwrought that it grows tiresome long before the line “I pee pee in my teepee” surfaces. As a result, readers lacking the patience of Eustace’s 10-year-old audience may find it rough going.
A verbally boisterous fish-out-of-water satire that’s sometimes entertaining, but often grating.