Codrescu's 'Wakefield' -- the old deal with the devil

May 16, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd

Wakefield, by Andrei Codrescu. Algonquin Books. 288 pages. $24.95.

You talk about alienated.

Wakefield, the protagonist of Andrei Codrescu's weird new comic novel, makes Holden Caulfield look like a towel-snapping frat boy.

He makes Yossarian look as though he runs the weekend ham supper at church.

Wakefield dusts off a timeless (some would say shopworn) theme: Man makes a pact with the devil.

And from there it veers, with mixed results, into an on-the-road adventure -- forget Kerouac; think Woody Allen, without his medication, jumping onto one 757 after another -- and sociological exploration of some of the maddening aspects of late 20th-century American life.

The book opens with Satan coming to take Wakefield, a neurotic motivational speaker given to rambling discourses that seem alternately to perplex, infuriate and demoralize his audiences.

But Wakefield is in the prime of his life, such as it is, a life that seems to revolve around boozy, morose conversations at the corner tavern with his friend Ivan, a Russian emigre cab driver and barroom philosopher as cheerful and optimistic as Wakefield is dispirited.

As it happens, the devil is as conflicted as Wakefield -- he's been at the job too long, he's tired, Hell is getting as corporate and cutthroat as every other workplace, with all sorts of young, ambitious devils back-stabbing each other to get ahead.

Plying the devil with single-malt Scotch, Wakefield strikes a bargain: If Wakefield can find his "true life" in a year's time, the Dark One will let him go on living.

So Wakefield sets off on a cross-country lecture tour that allows Codrescu, long-time NPR commentator, essayist, poet and English professor at Louisiana State University, to riff, sometimes with hilarious results, on some of the insanities of modern life: business-traveler vampires juicing up their cell phones and laptops at airport electrical outlets, the hassles of airplane travel, billionaire corporate czars, cosmetic surgery, dilettante art collecting and the media driving everyone nuts.

For some reason never fully explained, women find Wakefield attractive. And charismatic, too.

In fact, they jump into bed with him for Olympian rounds of sex if he so much as springs for a nightcap in his hotel room or shares a joint with them.

Then again, if film-goers could buy Diane Keaton having the hots for nebbishy Woody Allen -- especially when he peeled off his T-shirt to reveal a spectacularly scrawny chest and fishbelly-white skin -- they'll buy Wakefield, buzzed on champagne and killer sinsemilla, cavorting in a sauna with a tanned and toned West Coast woman.

By the novel's end, after his less-than-spectacular speaking tour and his one-night stands and a bizarre offer to sit out the coming assault on the "homeland" in the palatial bunker of a mysterious art collector who's also a nutcase survivalist, Wakefield returns home.

And, yes, he's been transformed.

Look, you can't be the alienated hero of a post-modern novel and travel thousands of miles, run into whacked-out characters and be thrust into one improbable situation after another and not be transformed.

But has he changed enough for the devil to give him a pass on the endless sleep?

Ultimately, the answer proves unsatisfying, as does much of Codrescu's witty, but uneven, novel.

Kevin Cowherd is a features columnist and reporter for The Sun. He has worked for The Evening Sun and The Sun since 1981. A collection of his columns, Last Call at the 7-Eleven (Bancroft Press, $19.95) can still be found at high-end flea markets and garage sales in the better neighborhoods in and around Baltimore.

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