Chris Vola’s debut novel, Monkeytown, is an indictment of American suburbs, a reminder that there is nothing scarier than young white people with lots of free time.
Josh, an over privileged, drug-addled 20-something, has recently lost both of his parents in a car accident. Handsome, apathetic, and unwilling to cope with his parents’ death, he spends most of his time high on a “pill salad” or drunk, fishing the Long Island Sound with his friend Billy, an Iraq War veteran. Josh brings to mind the quiet, small-town lotharios in Richard Russo novels; he lives off his parents’ life insurance policy and cannot seem to win back Lauren, his girlfriend of four years.
SAM Publishing 2012
Josh has become the kind of person he deplores: jobless, hopeless, a sad sack with a cool car, a former latchkey kid who has always “used the word summer as a verb.” Looking to alter the pattern, Josh and Billy sign on for a road trip to Virginia and change does indeed await: they end up prisoners in a secret compound run by an ex-military proto-terrorist named Titus. In the compound, they are starved and gouged with electric drills, force-fed hallucinogens, and used as pawns (or “monkeys”) in a multinational media conspiracy, the details of which are as tangled as the World Wide Web itself. There are multiple (and changing) identities, espionage, blackmail, torture, beheadings, drug experiments that rival MK Ultra, imprisonment, gang rape, radical Islam, martyrdom, and actors recreating all of the above for the cameras.
Vola did not set out to write a religious novel. Monkeytown is proof, however, that a novel of the moment, if it’s true to its purpose, cannot avoid the problems of the Middle East and of religion in general. The novel begins in the terrorist compound, with an imposing man named Kane killing a British Terror Expert. The violence is gruesome, and it is almost impossible not to think of Cain, at the beginning of the Bible, killing Abel.
Here Vola uses religion the way that an observational comedian would: not necessarily to make a point about faith or about believers but to set a tone.
His writing moves easily from the classic, high style of someone like Fitzgerald to the crude sardonicism of Bukowski or Burroughs. Grouper waiting to be killed are “darting tangerine fragments of life.” At sunset, the waves of the Long Island Sound “become a million jagged snowcaps that bob and creak.”
Humans do not fare as well. Kane’s skin is “piss-colored.” Another man, who is overweight, has “man tits” and is “a stomach stapler’s wet dream.”
Vola’s mixing of high and low also serves the plot well. Throughout Monkeytown, Josh cannot decide how he feels about his kind-of-ex, Lauren. On the one hand, he immortalizes her, speaks of her the way Homer speaks of Helen. Lauren is the one Josh calls his “caretaker” when he is trapped in the compound. On the other hand, he trivializes her, knocks her down to build himself up. “Lauren,” he says, “nearly hemorrhaged when I accidentally ran her iPhone through the wash.” Once he learns that Lauren has left him for a midtown accountant, Josh tells us, “There’s no longer a contradiction between feeling and not feeling. There are no contradictions.”
The whole novel turns on these lines. They reveal a deeper, darker truth about the media-driven culture we live in, a culture in which it makes sense to say something happened and didn’t happen, or (a la Schrödinger) that someone is dead and alive. It’s not that there are no contradictions. For Vola, everything is a contradiction, and the proper response in the face of this is to laugh as Sarah of the Old Testament does: with a laughter that is both mockery and reverence.
In the terrorist compound, fear is everywhere. And it’s the fear that changes Josh. In the beginning, he has to worry about having his flesh scooped out with a grapefruit spoon. In the end, his fears are more domestic and human. After meeting a little girl named Alaska, Josh realizes that fatherhood may be his greatest fear yet.
Originally published in The Brooklyn Rail, September 16, 2013