|INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT MAILER ANDERSON|
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A Genius in Our Midst
“Thing is with retards. . . . Half of them don’t know they’re retardedÂ You pity them like the Krishnas or Reagan because they seem harmless, but next thing you know they own every copy shop in California or get themselves elected president of the United States.”
Robert Mailer Anderson Boonville
All right, here’s a question: Have you ever listened to great jazz while drinking a glass of rich red wine? There are few combinations that can achieve this perfect symmetry, except of course, should the remarkable Tom Waits also start crooning on your stereo, and you’re in the midst of reading an unexpectedly awesome book. On a recent March evening, that’s what happened to me. The jazz CD (alternating with Tom Waits tracks) was Coleman Hawkins’ In a Mellow Tone, the wine was a Robert Mondavi merlot, and the book in question: Boonville by the spectacularly talented Robert Mailer Anderson.
There are thousands of books published every year, read dutifully by book critics who once in a while stumble onto something truly great. This is such a book. Forget the standard charted plotlines and the “beginning-middle-and-end” formula. Boonville breaks all the usual rules, and establishes a few of its own. The reason to read this “rant” (which is probably the most accurate description for the book) is because it’s hilarious, witty, engaging, and the writing is what great writing should be: the sort that makes you turn page after page, wondering what the author has to say next.
The story revolves around John, an endearing, quick-witted marketing employee living in Miami with his upwardly mobile girlfriend, who stumbles onto an inheritance from his dead grandmother. Sensing that his relationship and career are headed nowhere, he trades in Miami for a new life in his grandmother’s old place in the town of Boonville, California.
Boasting a population of only 715, Boonville is—how shall we say?—an odd place, dominated by a slew of quirky characters who speak their own garbled language, “Boontling”, and march to the beat of a different (and definitely certifiable) drummer. Upon his arrival, John meets the strange array of locals, and is immediately attracted to the intelligent hippie-chick/wannabe artist Sarah McKay. He sets up camp in his grandmother’s place, then attempts—with difficulty—to establish himself as a full-fledged resident of Boonville, while warding off serious urges to flee the godforsaken place and return to Miami at the drop of a hat. As Sarah aptly warns him: “Boonville is for losers. And we hate outsiders because they have an option we don’t, the chance to leave.”
John’s burgeoning relationship with the independent Sarah dominates the story, and Anderson offers an almost refreshingly old-fashioned, touching courtship as the two slowly but surely begin to establish a bond. However, if this is the meat of the story, the bones are equally interesting, since were it not for the colorful lunatic fringe (the immoral deputy Cal, the insane Daryl, the bizarre Kurts family, the dope-dealing Blindman, not to mention Sarah’s commune-happy mother) which filter through the chapters, the story would be lost. Boonvillians are a cross between gun-toting, beer-swilling rednecks with questionable morals, and marijuana-growing “I can’t believe the ‘60s are over” hippie throwbacks who live in a neighboring community.
There are few sections that run into the cliche problem (specifically, typical California stereotypes of which we have all heard too often). However, Anderson’s gift of painting vivid descriptions and writing witty repartee is so astonishing that we can’t help but forgive him for the minor error. The book is peppered throughout with sections which are roll-on-the-floor funny, such as a conversation between John and a local:
“Kinda makes you wonder,” a voice said. “Maybe aliens really did kill Kennedy. . . . “
“I’m sorry,” John apologized. “Did you say aliens assassinated Kennedy? John F. Kennedy?”
“Haven’t you seen the videotape?” the man asked. . . . “The same people coverin’ up the UFOs. They had the real E.T. and nobody knew it, except government agents, and when he died they destroyed the body. . . . It’s complicated and linked to drugs and patterns in cornfields and LBJ not runnin’ for a second term.”
Who can blame John for his mind-boggling quandary?—that of either fleeing for his life, or sticking around Boonville, knowing that if you can’t beat them, you’ll have to join them:
“John wondered if waking up in Boonville was the worst thing the world had to offer. Worse than Turkish prisons, worse than being buried alive, worse than reruns of Three’s Company, fruitcakes, heavy metal, herpes, Lee Iacoca, being trapped in an elevator with Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and Whitney Houston, who all want to sing rounds of show tunes until you’re rescued.”
The story behind the story is even more interesting. This is Anderson’s first book (which given his prowess, is hard to believe). A native Californian, he actually lived in Miami for a while, then schlepped around New York working as a suit-seller, furniture-mover, and temp before finishing his novel. Now married with two children, he lives in San Francisco, a stone’s throw away from the town of Boonville, which actually exists. (Talk about putting a town on the map.)
Anderson has received praise and words of encouragement from a slew of distinguished literati, including Calvin Trillin, Naomi Wolf, and Norman Mailer who said of Anderson: “[H]e could become a member of that vanishing American breed—a major novelist.” (Note: Anderson’s middle name is Mailer—no relation to Norman, but it’s inevitable that Mr. and Mrs. Anderson had literary aspirations for their son.) Critics around the nation have lauded the book, and heralded the age of Robert Mailer Anderson.
There are a few writers I have wanted to meet after reading them: J.D. Salinger, the late, great Ring Lardner and Peter Taylor, and now Robert Mailer Anderson, who was gracious enough to grant me a phone interview. He loves jazz and Tom Waits (which earned him additional points), Cole Porter, and Hunter S. Thompson. Boonville has been described by some reviewers as Pynchonesque, but there’s more of a “Hunter S. meets Salinger’s Holden Caulfield” thing going on, which makes for captivating reading. This is a book about rebellion, courage, and coming of age—a great American story. John is a fond addition to a long line of unforgettable literary heroes: charming, gentlemanly, sharp as a tack, and hysterically funny, leaving us with the question: how about a sequel?
Anderson can easily establish himself alongside other American literary giants, but he needs to keep writing—which he is, thank God. This is a great start and we want more, a lot more.