[24 July 2002]
““Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own.”
The close-up of Mike Magnuson, gripping a cold Miller in front of his t-shirt clad beer belly, that graces the cover of his recent book, Lummox, provokes a few assumptions. 1. This book is “working class fiction.” 2. The guy on the cover can’t possibly be the author. 3. If the guy on the cover is the author, then this book (in Magnuson’s terminology) must suck ass.” Perhaps it’s stereotypical, but men who drink American beer and watch football aren’t even supposed to read books, much less write them. Magnuson, however, has bucked the stereotype. He is a regular blue-collar guy, but he’s also a damn good fiction writer.
Lummox is Magnuson’s autobiographical coming of age story, and it’s all about people misunderstanding him and making false assumptions. For example, he’s been labeled a “lummox all his life: a rude, uncouth, man’s man, who farts and belches in public, refers to women as “chicks,” watches sports, and drinks beer. There is some truth to this label, and Magnuson doesn’t mind it. But he also knows that it’s misleading, because, at heart, he isn’t a lummox at all. Magnuson has a secret life, filled with Bach, opera, philosophical musings, the writings of Marcel Proust, and an exquisite sensitivity to the beauty and pain of living. Unfortunately, even when he has acquired a college degree in English Literature, Magnuson is unable to allow his secret life to take center stage. Magnuson writes:
He’s got that most useless of all college degrees, too: English Literature. Which is essentially a degree in book appreciation. A guy can’t make a living appreciating books now, can he? That would be like getting paid to have a supermodel suck your dick.
This irreconcilable tension, between Magnuson’s blue-collar background and his highbrow inner life, is what drives Lummox‘s narrative, as he fights to find a place where he can truly be himself.
Along the way, Magnuson encounters a set of hilariously familiar characters and embarks on a series of misadventures. Among other things, he ends up: illegally living, and partying, in the band room of an elementary school; working at a plastics factory; participating in a communal household that espouses the slogan: “Feminism is the Theory; Lesbianism is the Practice”; and counseling juvenile delinquents. Some individuals he encounters along the way are a white jazz aficionado who fancies himself to be becoming a black intellectual,” an aging hippie who convinces women that his tai chi practice has allowed him to deactivate his sperm,” and a ““theoretical lesbian” who sleeps with women because it is the best political stance to take.” Throughout it all, one thing is certain: Magnuson’s life is anything but boring.
Like his story, Magnuson’s writing style is also quite lively. His narrative prose, peppered with slang, cusses, and incorrect grammar, is free flowing, entertaining, and perfectly suited for the telling of his tale. This stylistic informality allows Magnuson to poke fun at his follies, while also enabling him to describe his pain and loss with moving sincerity. Magnuson’s lighthearted, yet poised style carries over to his dialogue, and his characters’ entirely believable personalities are largely delineated by their voices. All in all, Lummox has the tone of a bar room tale, told by a wild-eyed narrator, who breathes life into each of his characters, entertaining a crowd of strangers for hours on end.
But, however adept Magnuson may be as a storyteller, he certainly isn’t in the same league with the writer he seems to admire most: Marcel Proust. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Lummox with Remembrance of Things Past, one of the high points of twentieth century literature, but Magnuson begs for it, by spending pages detailing his own reading of Proust’s magnum opus.
If Proust has influenced Magnuson’s development as an author, it isn’t evident from Lummox. Where Proust’s writing is refined and poetical, Magnuson’s is coarse and straightforward. Where Proust spends time looking inward, Magnuson allows himself to be unreflectively carried along by a current of events. And while Proust excels in exposing the profundity of seemingly mundane experiences, Magnuson revels in the absurdity and meaninglessness of day-to-day life, without looking deeper.
This lack of depth is Lummox‘s primary fault. Even though Lummox claims to dig beneath the beer-bellied surface of its protagonist, its findings are superficial and unenlightening. Where readers of Proust stand to gain a profound understanding of the inner workings of the narrator’s mind, and- by extension- the minds of all humans, readers of Lummox will walk away with but one key insight: lummoxes can be intellectuals, too.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/lummox/