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Zanesville
Kris Saknussemm
Villard, 485 pages

Zanesville
Kris Saknussemm
Kris Saknussemm's work has appeared in the Boston Review, The Hudson Review, Prairie Schooner, and Rosebud, among others. He lives in Australia with his dingo. Zanesville is his first novel.

Kris Saknussemm's website
Zanesville the Novel website
Excerpt from Zanesville
Interview with Kris Saknussemm

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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A naked man awakens in Central Park with no memory of who he is or where he came from. He's blond, handsome, and hugely endowed; on his back is carved the truncated phrase FATHER FORGIVE THEM F. He's discovered by the Satyagrahi, the denizens of Fort Thoreau, a secret hi-tech sanctuary for society's dropouts run by an ex-lawyer drag queen and an embittered dwarf, under the aegis of shadowy master hacker Parousia Head.

The Satyagrahi take the man in, but the tests they run on him reveal some strange things. According to his DNA he's Paul Sitio, a.k.a. Hosanna Freed, ex-porn star and legendarily virile free-love cult leader -- but Freed has been dead for nearly thirty years. The man's identity is password-protected and his security clearance is as high as it gets. More alarming, there's embedded code that links back to the Vitessa Cultporation, the nation-spanning commercial empire that all but owns the world.

The Satyagrahi don't know what it means, but they do know the man is too dangerous to keep around. They place him on a Greyhound bus, equipped only with the name they've given him, Elijah Clearfather, and a map marked with three of the most significant points in the life of Hosanna Freed -- Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he was born; Dustdevil, Texas, where he died; and LosVegas, Nevadafornia, where he became a porn star. Thus begins an epic search for identity, a psychedelic odyssey across an America surreally transformed by earthquake, holy wars, futuristic technology, and out-of-control pop culture. Clearfather is tormented by the sense that he has come into the world to find someone -- but whom? He's pursued by the big questions -- What is he? Who made him? -- and also by more specific mysteries: Why does he dream of whirlwinds, of a city made of cyclones? What's his connection to Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd, the neglected American genius who received enlightenment in a tornado? Who is Stinky Wiggler, whose gnomic aphorisms decorate road signs that only Clearfather can see?

According to the back cover copy, Zanesville is "By turns hilarious and deeply moving, a savage, fiercely intelligent satire that is also a page-turning adventure and a transcendent love story..." Well, maybe. Zanesville presents as a delirious explosion of authorial free-association, propelling its amnesiac hero from one hallucinatory situation and bizarre encounter to another in a rapid-fire style that appears to possess no logic beyond the author's imagination, and often leaves the reader as bemused as Clearfather himself. There are ex-footballer drag queens and lesbian motorcycle gangs, drug-addled maniacs and genetically-altered monsters, secret revolutionary networks and sinister world-dominating corporations, genitally-obsessed Disney-style cartoon characters, outcast communities weirder than a Bosch painting, whole states remade as amusement parks. Imagine On the Road rewritten by Hunter Thompson and filmed by Terry Gilliam. Clearfather's adventures are interwoven with archetypal elements of American mythos -- prairies, bingo halls, revivalists, roller coasters, tornadoes, baseball -- and punctuated by a series of astonishing action sequences: a nightmare flight via dogsled through the mutant-populated subway tunnels of New York City, an apocalyptic encounter between a swarm of robotic locusts and a super-cyclone, a demented pop culture implosion in which giant celebrity robots battle each other, and the entertainment mecca of LosVegas, to extinction. Here's a taste:

Fire-breathing Tom Jones got Wayne Newton in a headlock and flung him into the MusicaLand dome. He then went on a spree, stomping stretch limos and sushi bars, boiling a couple of white elephants in the reflecting pool of the Taj Mahal before breaking off at the knees. The giant Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis hissy-fitted into the spinning lights of the Chunder Wheel. Giant Frankenstein and Dracula caved in the bubble of FairytaleWorld, and Big Michael Jackson, with huge glinting dark glasses, and Big Woody Allen, with large glinting normal glasses, chased hysterical children into the Grand Canal as terror gripped the megalopolis.
Not all of this over-the-top imagery works, and the excesses sometimes become tedious, as in the lesbian motorcycle gang sequence, which features whips, multiple amputees, and an exceedingly perverse tea party. Characterization is vestigial, which doesn't matter in the careening action sequences, but becomes problematic when the story wants to go deeper -- for instance, the "transcendent love story" touted in the cover copy. Kokomo, Clearfather's child-like inamorata, is less dimensional than Dooley Duck, a cartoon character whom Clearfather brings to life; her doomed romance with Clearfather, whose tragic resolution drives Clearfather to an epic act of self-mortification, packs little emotional punch as a result.

The novel's strength lies in the manic fertility of the author's imagination -- in a book stuffed to bursting with outlandish events, locales, and beings (human and not), it's an astonishing feat never to repeat oneself -- and in its resonant themes, which coalesce gradually and with surprising clarity out of the apparent chaos: the search for self, the search for meaning, the search for God. There are echoes of Frankenstein and Paradise Lost -- and, especially, The Wizard of Oz. In the end Clearwater's acid trip of a Yellow Brick Road does lead him to the wizard, who may indeed be God -- or at least, god of his own self-created universe. In that ultra-strange environment, where realities slide into each other and alternate universes lurk behind cliff walls, Clearfather, like Dorothy, discovers that the wizard is quite a bit less than he seems.

Is Clearwater a Messiah? A puppet? Is his destiny inevitable, or is there room for free will? Is it all illusion? On these questions the book ends, tying up themes and plot threads with unexpected neatness. Plenty of room, however, is left for further developments. Since Kris Saknussemm's web site describes Zanesville as "the first book in The Lodemania Testament," we can presumably expect answers at some point in the future.

Copyright © 2006 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Awakened City, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.


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