The final blurring of real and unreal Truly novel: Following his own odd trains of thought, writer Mark Leyner creates stories that leave readers unsure of what is fact and what is fiction.

January 22, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

The best way to interview Mark Leyner is to procure a miniaturized submarine, like the one the surgical team used in "Fantastic Voyage," and then be injected directly into his brain, preferably with the film's star, Raquels biological information highway and ponder the dissonant images and factoids that propel this New Jersey writer's one-of-a-kind fiction.

"Ah yes, there's the recipe for Testosteroni, the pasta for men, alongside a recent article on England's mad-cow disease problem," Raquel might say. Or, "Why, here's French poet Arthur Rimbaud, sitting next to that adorable little boy from TV's 'Family Affair!'"

Alas, technology has yet to make this tour possible. So you fall back on a decidedly low-tech and conventional route to Mr. Leyner's mind: a long-distance telephone conversation a few days before his book tour brings him to Washington's Olsson's Books tonight to read from the new paperback edition of "Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog." (Vintage, $11).

"I'm going to try to create as simple a media persona as possible, so I can pack as few clothes as possible," he says from his home in Hoboken, N.J., musing on the strange alter egos that emerged from his previous book tours -- cyberpunk, steroid-addled father, love child of William S. Burroughs and David Letterman.

"People are so disappointed that I'm a fairly nice person," he confesses. "I can see them sort of deflate. I am a monster, but not that sort of a monster."

Such confusion may arise from his subjects in "Corn Dog," a collection that ranges from "Immoral Allure," a meditation on how evil makes you good-looking, to "Dangerous Dads," advice for the new father who wants to maintain his immoral allure. (It ends with Mr. Leyner adjusting daughter Gaby in her sidecar, as they prepare for a motorcycle jump over the 31-story Luxor casino in Las Vegas.)

"Describing it as over-the-top doesn't begin to capture Leyner's style, an imaginative explosive fusion of $10 words (always used precisely), slang, consumerist slogans and obscure medical terminology," a People magazine reviewer wrote of "Corn Dog" last year. "Emphatically not for everyone," Newsweek observed. "Then again, what good book is?"

So how does Mr. Leyner make the cognitive connections that allow him, for example, to turn Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" into a play called "Young Bergdorf Goodman Brown," in which Mr. Leyner shops for an Armani backpack for his daughter's Barbie?

"I'm just omnivorously interested in things," he explains. "I think I have a mind that's like a doctor's waiting room, with a miscellany of magazines lying around and I'm interested in them all."

As a boy growing up in New Jersey, he used his mind's weird twists and turns to entertain himself on interminable shopping trips with his parents. Now 40, he still revels in following the train of his own thoughts. A short piece in "Corn Dog" centers on his attempt to come up with three foods with military ranks in the time it takes his wife, Merci, to exchange a nursing bra.

"Who truly understands how the mind works?" he wonders, having come up rather quickly with General Tso's chicken and Cap'n Crunch, then rejecting beef Wellington and kaiser roll. "Just what happened within the network of excitatory and inhibitory synapses enabling neurotransmitters to alter the way that my pyramidal neurons integrated cortical signals across thousands of spines in their dendrites -- so that suddenly (as Merci pushed through the revolving door and headed for my car) the words 'Admiral Salt-Cod Fish Cakes' miraculously materialized in my consciousness?"

This may not sound like the stuff of which mainstream careers are made, but Mr. Leyner has transcended the cult-writer status earned by his first two books, "I Smell Esther Williams" and "My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist."

He began to find a mass audience in 1992 with "Et Tu, Babe," a novel centering on a wildly successful, self-obsessed cult novelist named Mark Leyner. Declaring himself a star helped to make him, if not a star, then a borderline ubiquitous media presence.

He appeared on "Late Night With David Letterman." The New York Times magazine called him "America's best-built comic novelist," a tribute to his weightlifting regimen. A movie version of "Et Tu, Babe" is planned, starring John Cusack and Cameron Diaz.

Now, in the February issue of Esquire, he debuts as the magazine's regular humor columnist. He also has written for George, covering the '96 campaign. "I spent four days with Richard Lugar in New Hampshire," he says. "I don't think I made it up. There are photos, so I guess I didn't. Then again, they can doctor photos now."

Mr. Leyner's work is perhaps best understood as a kind of performance art, in which the reader's inability to determine what is fact or fiction is key to the experience. "It's a fundamental part of reading my work to be at a loss, to be off the ground a bit, not quite able to have any sense of terra firma," he says. "It gives the work an odd quality I like."

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