Reviews by Jim Feast
Terry Richard Bazes, Lizard World (n.p.: Livingston Press, 2011)
Ron Kolm, The Plastic Factory (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2011)
A doctor’s brain-damaged daughter has a misshapen head so he lops it off and replaces it with that of a large dog. A British nobleman’s feet are diseased, so he has them removed and the dainty ones of an 18-year-old girl sewn on in their place. Yes, it’s bioengineering 18th century style! Or so it is imagined in Terry Bazes’ novel Lizard World.
As these descriptions already suggest, the book is a fantasy. The reader might call it a shaggy croc story in that the alligators of Florida play a prominent part in the book’s goings-on. The story begins at the Lizard World reptile zoo where good old boy Earl Frobey has mastered the hidden lore of body part grafting so it’s nothing to him to slap a few legs from an expendable crocodile on the zoo’s valuable Komodo monitor. However, it’s a bit more of a challenge to do a partial brain replacement for the few hundred years old nobleman, the Earl of Griswold, who as a young stripling visiting the New World, back when Florida was largely Indian territory, invaded a Native American ritual to rescue a comely Indian maid, and met an alligator/human hybrid who possessed the secret of immortality (simply keep replacing the pituitary gland in the aging body).
Although the premises of the book are a bit outlandish, the actual story, which alternates between chapters written about the Earl’s original adventures in a style that seems borrowed from Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and a more modern parlance for things in the present, is downright earthy and gloriously raucous.
The present day plot concerns the kidnapping of a New Jersey dentist, Max Smedlow, by the good old boys who are taking care of the Earl and are in need of a new pituitary. Smedlow wakes up to find his mind invaded and three-quarters controlled by the Earl whose body his brain now inhabits. This internal battle and Smedlow’s earlier entrapment by the body snatchers, balanced against the tale of the colonial search for the alligator route to immortality, make for a rollicking read, whose greatest pleasure comes from the deliciously juicy, cantankerous prose, whose flavor can be grasped from the following contrasted passages.
In the 18th century style, look at how Bazes describes the situation when, having stolen away the Indian princess, who was to be sacrificed to the alligator man, by playing a bait and switch between the princess and her maid Satchunk, who gets fed to the beast, the Earl makes love right in the monster’s very temple.
Neere so big as hartichoakes were her tawny bubbies and the softness of her privy hairs was like to pigeon-downe. But to come streight away to the point – now amidst the scratching of the hay and the swarming of the flyes and the wonderful pungent odours of the beast, I took the juicy wench. … the sudden panting of her fear amid the dolorous death-shrieks of this Satchunk did so salt the taste of my enjoyment, that not since I had t’aen my cousin Belinda in the barn … had I known such abundant excellency of sport.
In the current tale, here is the description of how the dentist, first learning that his mind, already placed in a new body, is also is being invaded by a second consciousness. At the moment, he is trying to pick up a cigarette lighter.
Suddenly in the depths of the skull, something shifted and shook like a seismic aftershock – and Smedlow, though he did his best to keep his fist closed around the lighter, once again felt a force fighting against him in his fingers, steadily loosening his grip …. As he stared intently at the long brown nails, he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that some other intelligence was also looking at them with him, pulling against him, sharing the very same eyes.
That gives you the flavor but not the tempo and the careening vitality of the book, which, with high humor, shows the various heroes negotiating innumerable pitfalls and pratfalls as they make their merry ways through a labyrinthine plot.
This book, a comic triumph, with inspired mimicry of an older prose style and colorful, looney (or made looney by circumstances) characters romping through adventures with brain grafting, makes a fascinating contrast to a recent novella, Ron Kolm’s The Plastic Factory, which takes up similar themes: the stranger uses of technology and that of entrapment, but in a diametrically opposite vein.
Where Bazes is florid, extravagant and absurdist, Kolm, tracing an equally absurd narrative, is sober, ultra-realist and deadpan. In fact, the difference between the books can be compared to that between the forms of labor profiled in each book. In the first, it is handicraft, the concealed lore of body grafting, passed on from father to son, and in the second, that of modern industry, encapsulated in the job in the hot room Kolm’s hero (named Ron) has in a factory making plastic eyeglass lenses.
Putting a dog’s head on a girl is certainly bizarre, but is it any more bizarre than one the hero is expected to do when he is put in charge of watching the refrigerated building holding polystyrene, which is made of a number of compounds, including styrene and excimer? “At room temperature styrene will evaporate if not constricted; the excimer will detonate violently.” Now what happens if the refrigerator breaks down and the building begins to warm up? The narrator explains, in such cases, “I’m supposed to speed back to the plant, locate the portable generator … drag it down to the concrete enclosure, hook it up to the wounded freezer and start it with a lawn-mower whipcord. When the factory foreman tried to demonstrate this procedure during my training period, he couldn’t get the generator going.”
Both Smedlow and Ron are trapped, the former in the Lord’s body, the latter in a hazardous job that barely pays enough to keep his wife and him living low on the hog in a ramshackle, drafty hillside home, in which “the roof, an old slate and wood beam type, leaks like a sieve.” Moreover, rather than looking for another occupation, he self medicates. As he explains, “We have different ways of making the long nights of work go a little faster – my partner takes drugs and I drink.” The real heart of his imprisonment comes from a mental sterility that makes it impossible for him to envision another direction for his life. As he explains, “I’m going through a breakdown of the imagination.”
There is no way to comparatively evaluate these books since they move on such different planes, each appealing, perhaps, to different parts of the brain’s humor lobe. Bazes offers a work of Rabelaisian gusto and travesty while Kolm works with the more austere, humbled wit of a Beckett or Pinter, each writer mapping his own geography of a tortured soul.