Sunday, July 19, 2015

Die Laughing (Louis K. Lowy)

The time is the fall of 1956. Sam E. Lakeside is an up-and-coming Vegas stand-up comic who has landed a possibly career-changing gig on The Steve Allen Show. And for good reason: the guy is funny.

Nothing is less possible to fake than laugh-out-loud humor. I'm not sure what percentage of Sam E.'s jokes are old chestnuts and how many were concocted by novelist Louis K. Lowy, but they were all new to me, and I kept laughing throughout the book. Sam E. (as we will know him) got me chuckling on the very first page:

"A couple of spacemen went to a Mars nightclub, but they left because it had no atmosphere."

My favorite is a terrific off-color Donald Duck story that I am now springing on all my friends.

So Sam E. has got it made, except that he's been sleeping with a gangster's girlfriend, which is kind of an unhealthy thing to do, and his dreams would end with him splattered in front of a Napoleon-type hitman and his looking-for-kicks gal pal, except that we all know that the sky above the Nevada desert was just swarming with UFOs in the mid-Fifties, and one of them decides to come in for a landing at just the moment when -

Lowy's unusual science-fiction comedy is off and running at that point, and so, shortly, are Sam E. and the gal pal, Cricket, soon joined on their cross-country dash by a bespectacled, bow-tie-wearing comic book writer who survived a grilling at the anti-comics Congressional hearings in '54. Meanwhile, the hitman, Francis, has thrown in his lot with unsettlingly childish shape-shifting aliens who have a one-track obsession with refined oil, which they chug like bootleg hootch, and who plan to conquer the world so as to keep up their supply.

Die Laughing is a feat of sustained tone. It is not pure burlesque in the style of a movie like Mars Attacks!; it is darker and more literary than that (quite a lot of the book takes place in the recesses of Sam E.'s mind). Maybe a better cinematic parallel would be the surprisingly soulful Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The characters in Die Laughing are poised midway between being cutouts and rounded figures, which allows Lowy a lot of operating space; he can be hilarious or grim, as need be.

The edginess is incarnated with particular effectiveness in the complex person of Cricket, who is a brainy fan of science-fiction movies, a lethal wielder of switchblades, and a seriously sexy woman - but who, we do not forget and neither does Lowy, tagged along on Francis's planned hit for the fun of it:

...all she wanted was the thrill, the exhilaration, the sexual charge of seeing his life end in a soiled, point-blank heap. She wanted a giggle.

The comic book writer, Lee, who gets involved after picking up the hitch-hiking Sam E. and Cricket, adds another set of uncertainties, proving both valuable for his intellectual resources and annoying for his superior attitude:

[Sam E.] wasn't sure if he liked Lee or not, but there was something about the stocky man that made him uneasy, as if Lee's presence had altered the path they were on. He just didn't know if it was for better or worse.

But probably the most unexpected element in the novel's mix doesn't even have much to do directly with the plot: it's the verb-driven energy and visual precision of the prose:

All of Sam E.'s years on the road hadn't prepared him for the cavernous backstage of the Hudson Theatre. The room, so tall it looked ceiling-less, was shouldered with a labyrinth of corridors, overhangs, backdrops, wardrobe, make-up, and writer rooms. The floor stage was ant-farmed by grips, camera operators, stage-hands, gaffers, sound engineers, and others who Sam E. wasn't sure what they did.
Sam E. cruised slowly along downtown Kansas City, passing old-fashioned brick sky-scrapers, dark-suited men and long-skirted women with Mamie Eisenhower bangs, hopping off and on green-and-white trolleys; black-skinned and white-skinned kids clustered around storefront windows watching flickering televisions; people going about their lives.
Roy smiled that goofy smile he knew people liked, and said, "Thanks, Rog." The strawberry sun's final pink rays rippling across the Oklahoma plain added a warmth to the gesture that would have been lost in the earlier, blazing-white afternoon heat.

All in all, the novel kills, like one of Sam E. Lakeside's best routines.

Die Laughing

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