In this totally bizarre exploration of what an overgrown American suburb filled with shallow upper-middle class characters might look like if a serial killer from an alternate universe showed up and started wreaking havoc, D. Harlan Wilson has channeled Kurt Vonnegut, and it’s not pretty. At least the author dedicated this work to himself rather than anyone in his acquaintance. Self-dedication is fitting, given the overarching theme throughout Blankety-Blank of self-absorption and selfishness in general.
At first blush I thought I might be reading something that emerged after Wilson read The Sirens of Titan while partaking of questionable chemical substances, but I suppose it could be more of a twisted reaction to the disgusting capitalistic culture of American suburbia, with its ever-larger flat screen TVs and bleeding edge technology acquisition – iPhone on steroids, anyone? Rutger Van Trout Sr, the protagonist, buys a BMW that does all his office work for him. In fact, he can’t remember if he has ever even been in his office.
What with the US economic crisis now leaching out around the globe, this might not be the best time to ponder the absurdity of a story set in a region known as GRIM, Michigan – “Grand Rapids Internal McSubübermensch”. Then again, one could read this story from the comfort of one’s not-yet-abandoned sub-prime-mortgage-financed six-bedroom McMansion and think, hey, things could be worse – at least there’s not a serial killer with a barbershop pole for a head knocking on my door.
Most of the characters are as deep as the scum that covers the surface of the poisoned water feature at the center of the suburban community. Mr Blankety Blank, as the barbershop pole-faced killer who stalks Quiggle Estates identifies himself, at least provides an indiscriminate link between various caricature-based characters, finding novel ways to dispatch them and keeping things interesting by penning inscrutable messages in bodily fluids.
Scattered throughout the book are distractions from the nonsensical story-line: random asides about the origin of ferris wheels, quotations from historical serial killers, and definitions of Freudian terminology, perhaps to aid the reader in constructing some theory of the motivations of various characters, maybe to amuse, possibly to educate. The “short history” sections distract from the fact that there is not a coherent plot thread running through the book, unless perhaps you count the totally random dispatching of individuals and entire families by Mr Blankety Blank, who is nothing if not undiscriminating in his methodical attempt to wipe out most of the community.
Ultimately, Rutger Van Trout is a sad figure, and as time goes on, it becomes clear that he knows it. When he tires of his staring contest with a pet praying mantis, and has nothing better to think about, he acknowledges that his car could do his job just as well as he can: “Any person, place or thing could excel at his profession of choice given a set of simple how-to instructions”. He builds a silo in his front yard because it’s a popular thing to do, and because a single silo just isn’t enough, he ends up having an entire barnyard raised, complete with cow and bales of hay, thrown in by the construction company for such a loyal customer.
Once one has a silo, one has to consider what to put in it. After a great deal of ruminating, Rutger fills his with super balls – those really bouncy rubber balls you get out of a vending machine at a gas station for a quarter. The neighbors are confused, but that seems to be one of the things that keeps this community going – trying to one-up their neighbors on weirdness. One of the odd neighbors is a 90-year-old Lou Diamond Phillips; Wilson has doubled the eponymous celebrity’s age and thrown him into the mix as a has-been movie producer who sleeps around within the community. The reference to Phillips might be a way of indicating to readers that this is Wilson’s prediction for the future of American suburbs in 50 years or less.
Later in the book, Rutger throws a ‘purple party’, spray-painting his entire property with saturated purple color that will disappear by morning. Everyone comes wearing nothing but the color of the day. Theme parties are a popular way to justify a binge-drinking session for the adults, who seem desperate to find some meaning in their ridiculous lives. It takes about half an hour before such social occasions disintegrate into frat-party-style public urination sessions and muscle-flexing competitions between the resident body-builders. Meanwhile their children might well be tied up in the basement, ostensibly kept out of harm’s way.
At least Rutger cares about his family. He attempts to escape the vortex that is Quiggle Estates, considering taking off for six months in South America, because there is an entire world down there that he knows nothing about, and anywhere is better than GRIM. Ultimately, he gets sucked back in by thoughts of his family, because:
“Despite Rutger’s feelings of unsettledness…he loved his family. Layke. Francisco. Rutger Jr. They annoyed him. They irked him. He suspected they often plotted against him, individually and as a group. His wife the esoteric weirdo. His daughter the underhanded sex fiend. His son the overimaginative pussy…But he loved the sons of bitches. He even loved his house, and his job. And his silo.”
Wilson’s book may appeal to readers looking for a bit of original exploration into an absurdist alternate future of American cities and technology. Some may argue that American values and morals are on a constant decline, and this book is a logical extension of the theoretical retribution that might eventually be visited on a community where all hope of redemption has dropped out of the picture. Vulgar and offensive, Wilson makes no apologies for his disturbing vision, though he does offer a final ray of hope that when all seems lost, evil can be defeated when you least expect it.