Ellis’s third seriocomic novel (Platitudes, 1988; Home Repairs, 1993), this about a con-man/cult leader/motivational speaker whose provenance goes back to Lewis’s Elmer Gantry. Dreadlocked black playboy/inspirationalist Ashton Robinson, a master of paid promotional TV, decides to describe his career on about four dozen microcassette audiotapes. After they—re discovered under a joshua tree in the Mojave Desert by a deputy sheriff—and after two segments of 60 Minutes have aired, devoted to them—we also get —em straight from the horse’s mouth. Some of the novel has Ashton addressing his Personal Empowerment Systems seminars and getting his followers to rise from losers to winners, as he himself has done, although he’s still a loser deep inside (and is still rising above it). “We are either who we are afraid we are, or who we hope to be,” he offers mildly. Ellis’s device here is to preach to the reader with airheaded half-truths that seem merely semi- sensible. Yet Ashton’s speeches leave you, as with his brighter students, walking around in figurative circles and leaking excelsior. The first 60 Minutes segment paints him as a rather charming millionaire rogue. Then Ashton, hooked on a wildly dizzying cough syrup, is visited at home by Mudamenta, a Brazilian midget who shape-shifts into a beautiful woman (and sleeps with him). As a result of Mudamenta’s influence, Ashton gets religion, right here, right now, and decides to change his pitch, marketing something like a scientific religion or system he calls axe (after an Afro-Brazilian word meaning “spirit”) that’s reminiscent of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology. He also stocks a wine cellar with red cough syrup and has sex with his female followers before retribution arrives. Many amusing scenes for Ellis’s faithful, but no match for Sinclair Lewis.