You have heard it before: you are the lead in the running film or the voluminous Proustian saga that is your life. This is what you tell yourself, whether as a result of confidence, privilege, evolutionary machinations, or sheer tyranny of will. It gets you through the day. In all likelihood, however, you, if you are anything, are the background actor moving his or her lips, standing naturally at your mark, engaged in silent conversation with another body as backdrop. You are a minor character, a friend of a friend at a party, a relative, or an ex—discarded in a throw-away line of dialogue. You are much closer to how Gray Davenport sees himself: “a fraction of an atom, taking up an area of space so insignificant that it [is] no surprise to be regularly ignored,” and, like Gray, you want something different, you have ambition, you desire a function. Mr. Neutron, the new novel by Ponepinto, follows Gray as he transitions from backdrop to accidental lead, from weightless, charge-less neutron into something with presence, someone with a purpose. This novel—satiric, comic, slapstick, surreal—follows this floundering fool as he quests to change himself and the city he has so often failed.
Not only is Gray Davenport a loser, but he also works for one—Bob, mayoral candidate and small time thinker who serves as a perpetual candidate and joke to residents of the dumpy coastal city of Grand River. Gray serves as a “political consultant, but [is] not really political. Not republican, not Democrat, but not independent enough even to be an Independent.” Bob—stuffed with corn nuts and regurgitated phrases on crime and taxes—is just the perfect blank mass to reflect such mediocre indifference. Bob’s second in command is Patsy, a woman rarely, if ever, seen off of her rubber stability ball. Patsy, too, has contented herself to her permanent runner-up position and keeps Bob as hollow and superficial as possible.
Grey begins shedding his indifference, however, when the gigantic, hypnotic, and dimwitted Reason Wilder arrives, announcing his candidacy for mayor. Reason comes from nowhere, an “unknown Pied Piper . . . without a platform or a slogan” who speaks in simplicities and magically transfixes people across (and off) the political spectrum.
Gray, un-hypnotized by the naïve charm of the giant, smells something rotten from Reason, both literally and figuratively, and from there the novel unrolls in plot, characterization, and quirks like something from an avuncular Pynchon (sans elaborate formal stylings): there’s a mad-scientist huckster, conspiratorial underpinnings, a porn star turned political operative, corruption, reanimation, characters with suitable aptonyms, the stink of pollution, and enough losers to fill the leaky hot-tub of a deserted motel at the edge of town. The novel is avuncular in both its friendliness to readers as entertainment and in its comedic stylings, which surround a journey of misery and defeat for our titular neutron.
Do not misunderstand this as your typical hero’s journey, however, though many of the tropes and stages appear as the novel progresses. Heroes eventually heed the call to adventure, reveal strength in their road of trials, and experience clarity in apotheosis. In Mr. Neutron, Gray Davenport moves through his journey in a perpetual state of near capitulation to the permanent mediocrity to which he has been relegated. He remains lost, in fantasy and from success.
Heroes, though flawed, also tend to be more likeable. Gray Davenport is a sad, pessimistic, weak, sex-crazed, occasionally misogynistic, often irritating, but nonetheless engaging enough observer of his little mad world to carry the reader along. This makes him a difficult character in which to ask readers to invest time and emotion. Some readers may give up on Gray, while others will recognize themselves in, or at least respect, his persistence and determination.
Early in the novel Gray, imaging himself as the subatomic particle, thinks “Perhaps neutrons were necessary. Perhaps there was a higher calling for them . . . He just had to deduce what that purpose was.” The purpose finally comes for Gray, when a charge transforms this neutron, and a new(ish) life emerges. The change in the final parts of the novel is as absurd and funny as it is unexpected by both protagonist and reader.
Finally, though this novel is satirical, it is not overtly political. The fun it pokes at politics—corruption, collusion, amorality, idiocy, and gullibility—is universal. This may bother some readers who demand outright resistance or compliance to the current situation of America. Instead the reader gets something fun, something light, a reprieve from the static of screaming heads that fill every page and every screen. Sometimes that is what we need from a book: entertainment.
by Joe Ponepinto
7.13 Books, March 2018
Paperback, 300pp., $15.99
David A. Southard is a writer, musician, and teacher. His novella K. at Liberation will be published by BOSS Underground Press in the summer of 2018. He creates music under the moniker Building a Building. You can find him @davidsouthard.