Nostalgia, sentimentality and irreverent comedy redeem a paper-thin plot in this latest from the veteran author of The Exorcist and later fiction (Dimiter, 2010, etc.).
It’s a monologue performed (as if in a standup routine) by a retired octogenarian Hollywood screenwriter, Peruvian-American Joey El Bueno. While politely deflecting his Bellevue Hospital Nurse Bloor’s request for his evaluation of her screenplay idea (about Nazi scientists and Hitler’s preserved brain), Joey reminisces about his boyhood in New York City circa 1941, as a reluctant Catholic middle-school student, a devourer of pulp fiction and virtually every movie ever made and the accidental friend of a beautiful, eccentric older girl named Jane Bent, who attaches herself to him, becomes his self-appointed mentor and reappears mysteriously as herself and in other guises throughout Joey’s youth. Though we are made privy to his adventures with Jane, none of Joey’s schoolmates or buddies will even acknowledge her existence. The resulting mystery possesses and enriches Joey’s imagination, as he grows regretfully away from his almost saintly “Pop,” a long-widowed pushcart vendor, and into something quite like adulthood. Major problems: Jane disappears from the novel for many pages at a time; Joey/Blatty can’t seem to distinguish a good gag from a groaner; and the eventually revealed identity of Joey’s mystery girl/woman is a clumsy letdown that few readers will fail to see coming. Nevertheless, there are charmingly funny evocations of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and a revelatory day spent at Coney Island’s Luna Park. One appreciates the cameo appearance made by a Boy Scout troop leader who moonlights as a numbers runner—not to mention the schoolteacher nun who assigns an essay on the topic “Why St. Francis of Assisi Talked to Birds But Not Fish.” But Blatty stacks the deck with forced emphases on the figure of Jane (“There was this aura about her, something spiritual; ethereal, really.”).
Readers aren’t likely to buy it. Our suggestion: Skim this one if you must, then pop some corn and watch the film version of The Exorcist again.