Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2006.
Jim Feast with Ron Kolm, Neo Phobe
(New York: Autonomedia, 2006).
Like the literary equivalent of Willie Sutton, who robbed banks because “that’s where the money is,” Jim Feast has written about writers because that’s where the stories are. The enigma of collaboration is the kernel, or cardboard tube, at the core of this meta-mystery, itself a collaboration with fellow Unbearable Ron Kolm, that is both less and much more than a crime procedural with philosophical and speculative science dimensions. The unique packaging with its stripped down type, luscious Richard Brown Lethem painting, Shalom’s six-pack logo, and no fewer than 20 people sharing the author’s photo, should keep it from falling into the hands of doctrinaire conventional mystery lovers, although William Shatner doing an audio-book would EXCEL.
The narrative, handled by a rotation of characters vivid and varied enough to fill several books, propels a mile-high pile of facts, clues and digressions, occasionally overflowing and washing out a sacred cow or two, with the relentless pace of Gaddis’ JR. Perhaps a closer parallel would be the protagonists of James M. Cain, whose solid grounding in their professions (whether milkman or insurance peddler) so inform their actions; but the workers of Neo Phobe are all temps, the sharecroppers of the nineties, and it takes a whole sick crew of them to tackle the project they embark on, solving a series of crimes while cashing in on them with a quickie best-seller.
Although they continue to implicate wackier and more nefarious villains, the greatest contempt is reserved for the hack writer who steps in to take credit for their legwork. The book is a taffy-pull of tension, both among the Phobes and between them and the many-headed amalgam of antagonists. It resonates down a pentagon’s worth of corridors, from the Bible and its belters, avant-Jazz, archaic computer and phone systems, Asian culture, the barroom, the boardroom and especially the bookstore, with a Greek chorus in the form of a conspiracy aficionado. The science fiction elements, involving brain washing for zealotry among other things, have both the light touch and the gravity of Flann O’Brien’s third policeman discussing his “molly-cule theory.”
Like a protest sign that asks, “Where do I go to Sell Out?” Neo Phobe balances the devil-may-care with the desperate, the eternal and the everyday, the craft and the recklessness of writing that makes robbing banks look easy. It is the ultimate act of guerilla poetry.