Dzanc Books: 462 pp., $23
Is there an English word for loopy openheartedness, for humor that careens into extremes but is grounded in surprisingly moving characters? "Vonnegutian" is too much for a book that doesn't try to reflect, in a larger sense, on the human condition, and it's a lot to put on a first-time novelist. But Matt Dojny's world view is so much the same: Maybe his book is "Vonnegutian"-ish.
In "The Festival of Earthly Delights," Dojny takes us to Puchai, a small, fictional country in Southeast Asia. We get there via the letters of Boyd Darrow, a twentysomething American who has just moved to Puchai with his girlfriend, Ulla. She's gotten a job in a local university's theater department, and he's hoping to teach English. To accommodate local customs, they've fibbed and said they're married, although in fact their relationship has hit a rough patch; moving to Puchai is a hopeful attempt at restoration.
Boyd's mind is less on the relationship than on his new environs — it's a classic fish-out-of-water story, Westerner-abroad edition. There are unusual foodstuffs, miscommunication, an unfamiliar religion, odd American expats, treasured antiquities and political and romantic undercurrents. It builds toward the festival of the book's title, which is part talent show, part Halloween and part debauched religious celebration.
At night, as Ulla sleeps, Boyd sits on an upturned bucket outside their apartment to write about his experiences. There are impossible names — Mrs. Haraporn Leekanchanakoth-Young is Ulla's boss, and a friendly neighbor is Máa. After failing to pronounce the seemingly simple "Máa" correctly, Boyd calls him Mr. Horse, his nickname. Everyone has one, giving the story a jaunty air: who can be annoyed at Mr. Horse, even if he does play Lionel Richie on his guitar too often?
The pleasure comes from Boyd who, anxiety-ridden or bloodied, remains bemused and amused. When his new boss, a Vietnam vet, demands that Boyd take a vial of urine back to America and pour it on the ground for him, Boyd is able to play along agreeably. A bathroom scene that should be disgusting is a riot. His way of seeing the world is off-kilter, as when he's attacked by a group of rotten-fruit-wielding, gypsy-like malchak teenagers. "I sat halfway up. My body felt as if it had been hollowed out like a pumpkin and filled with toothpaste," he writes.
He's helped from this predicament, and others, by his boss' daughter Shiney . She's a college student home for the summer, accompanied by her American boyfriend, a bearded know-it-all Boyd can't stand. Since Boyd is ostensibly married, his interest in Shiney shouldn't be romantic, but it's clear he's falling for her.
With Ulla, Boyd gets to know the university faculty; thanks to Shiney, the couple meet the younger malchaks, an ethnic minority subject to discrimination, who throw phenomenally loud dance parties and play music with a revolutionary bent.
Boyd's letters are never sent; addressed to an absent brother, they fill one notebook after another. The covers are included as fully-illustrated pages within the book, manic mash-ups of English non sequiturs and Photoshopped imagery. These were created by Dojny, who has worked as an illustrator, as were the drawings that punctuate the novel. (Did someone say Vonnegutianish?) They, like the fake song lyrics that appear, create space to take a different kind of mental breath in the narrative.
The book is from a 6-year-old Michigan-based independent, Dzanc Books. It has gone all-out, with pictures and a snazzy silver cover underneath the dust jacket. Coming from a small publisher, this June book is, sadly, not currently on shelves locally, but it's easily available online.
And it is a perfect summer read, armchair travel in a higher key. It moves through the familiar tropes with heightened silliness, with characters who are surprisingly moving. More than once, I read a scene and thought, "This would be a great movie!" only to think immediately afterward, "but it would be so easy to ruin it." That's because Dojny manages the near-impossible trick of being hilarious without going over the top. Of the American-abroad books I've read this year, this one is the most fun.