Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Thursday, May 11 2000, 2:29 PM
What's the difference between a shlemiel and a shlemozel ?
One distinction between these two classic Yiddish figures runs as follows. A shlemiel is the sort of person whose toast always falls to the floor butter-side down; a shlemozel is the sort whose buttered toast always falls butter-side down because he buttered it on both sides.
The difference is between simple pity for consistently bad luck, and a contemptuous pity for hard-earned negative karma.
Arthur Neresian's Manhattan Loverboy is the novel of an American shlemozel. Failure in American society is supposed to be tragic, not funny. Think of the irremediable pathos of social failure in that classic Sherwood Anderson story, "The Egg," where a dream of achievement dies hard. What if the same provincial screw-up of Anderson's story got to go to the big city and chase his dream, with the inevitable results?
A pomo picaresque novel like Manhattan Loverboy would be one possible future outcome. It's the sort of love story where the hapless protagonist meets the most gorgeous woman of his life, and then weeps and pees copiously into his pants in the middle of Grand Central Station when she addresses him sharply. At such hilarious moments of anti-romance, Arthur Nersesian's writing leaves readers in a fit of laughter. Nersesian possesses the gifts of timing and phrasing necessary to make these comic scenes work.
The story is set in a surreal version of New York City where money shapes all desires, which is pretty much like the real New York. The comic anti-hero, variously known as Joe Ngm and Joe Aeiou, is a penurious orphan sitting in the road of Manhattan life waiting for a Mack truck to run him over. He lives a rarified academic life as a graduate history student. His crazed Mack truck arrives in the form of Andrew Whitlock, mega-scion of Wall Street, who terminates Aeiou's university fellowship.
The subsequent chain reaction propels Joey Aeiou into the life of a mediocre proofreader when his truest talent is as a champion pornography collector. Aeiou's unfulfillment and barely restrained desires permeate his life, which resists organization towards the fulfillment of desires. Joey's apartment doubles as a personal Dumpster, and his life looks about the same. Where the novel asks a question mp;quot;Between fun and function, why must we choose the latter?" meet in Joey a fellow who would barely recognize functionality.
As a character, Joey is trapped in the central conundrum of consumer capitalism: how can I get a plush life and time to enjoy it, without working too much to enjoy anything? Clueless on this question, Aeiou just masturbates a lot and grazes endlessly off Twinkies. He is a dreamer haunted by his city: "Many of my dreams and revelations come from the margins of the city, places like the subways or bombed-out boarded-up brownstones." When not threatening, this city's people are poor, ugly and screwed-over: "Their laughs were nowhere near as powerful as their cries. They met their pleasures in perversity." Joey Aeiou is the singularization of this meeting between pleasure and perversity, one who lives off a vain hope that circumstances will conspire to protect him.
Whitlock, Aeiou's nemesis, lives at the other end of these problems. He has the money, but fills his life with schemes, business meetings, and unpalatable macaroni calculated at eleven cents a serving. His mind has been deformed by a life spent in successful pursuit of accumulation, a deformation hinted at by his gargoylish home. Whitlock lacks the capacity to enjoy and lives leashed to his capital. Behind-the-scenes manipulation of Aeiou's life becomes Whitlock's perverse entertainment as a pseudo-paterfamilias. Given the magnificence of Aeiou's capacity to produce public contempt for his incapacities and slovenly comportment, Whitlock indeed pursues a strange humor. Amy, an unsleeping Manhattanite goddess of efficiency and corporate executive power, serves as a shared lust-interest for Aeiou and Whitlock. Just when Nersesian appears to be in the midst of a heavy-handed and predictable resolution to this triadic conflict, the plot begins to weave, turn and reverse.
Nersesian has a lush style that lends itself to descriptions that tease a reader's sense of visualization. For example, he describes an aerial view of Manhattan as "that overpacked island, bordered between silver slivers of polluted rivers, a frail vein just waiting to burst like a cerebral hemorrhage, havoc in miniature." Nersesian's easy command of comic imagery is a reader's joy.
If the Manhattan of Money has all the spiritual potential of Beckford's Vathek, Nersesian suggests that we leap over that fate with a schlemozel's laugh. Fall flat on our incompetent faces we may, but we shall have the better of it for our laughter.
Manhattan Loverboy is published by Akashic Books