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Road Trip From Hell
By Gene Mirabelli

By Andrei Codrescu
Algonquin Books, 288 pages, $24.95

Andrei Codrescu is that some-what surly voice making wisecracks about American life and culture on National Public Radio. He’s also the editor of Exquisite Corpse, an online journal of life and letters; professor of English at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge; a writer of fact, fiction, opinion, and poetry; and editor and author of—I think—24 books and a CD. And that doesn’t count his most recent novel, Wakefield.

Codrescu’s new book opens with a flourish: “One day the Devil shows up. ‘I’ve come to take you.’ ” But Wakefield replies he’s not ready and begins a bargaining session that ends with Satan giving him a year in which to find an authentic life. If Wakefield can’t discover his true life in a year, then he’s toast and the Devil gets him. The year will begin when the Devil fires a shot, something like a starter pistol, but in the meantime Wakefield has business to attend to.

By the way, the Devil has seen better days. He’s no longer that dark, powerful figure who toyed with Faust and dragged Don Juan to hell. He’s not even that shabby but clever character who turned up in Crime and Punishment. Alas, bureaucracy has taken over the infernal regions, and the Devil is going crazy with committee meetings and red tape. Wakefield, a motivational speaker hired by big corporations to dispirit their workers, has a busy schedule zigzagging across the United States. And Satan, watching his progress, can relax a bit and relish the entertainment.

Codrescu’s Wakefield is a comic novel, but quite consciously a novel of cultural criticism, too. When Wakefield sets out from his fictional home (“an indulgent port city noted for its vigorous nightlife,” like, say, New Orleans) he begins a journey of self-discovery in which he will uncover the wonderful, confused, self-contradictory soul of this country. His first stop is the city of Typical (OK, not a wise choice of names), an insignificant prairie town made suddenly grand when it was chosen as headquarters for “the largest purveyor of software on the planet.”

Codrescu’s writing is a series of dazzling riffs and, indeed, the book is structured more like a jazz piece than a conventional novel. Wakefield’s lecture, which he gives extemporaneously, never knowing precisely what he’s going to say, is about “money and poetry (with a detour in art).” Codrescu is bright and can’t help himself, can’t make himself into a blockhead, and as a consequence there are ideas in Wakefield’s nutty, off-the-cuff speech that make much more sense than what’s going on around him.

The author fires off in so many different directions it’s hard for a reader to keep up. Just about anything uniquely American catches his eye: breast enlargement, Western bars, naïve radicals, strip joints, corporate art collections, expensive cultural exhibits. In one bravura passage he likens the desperate search that laptop users make for airport electrical outlets to a vampire’s search for blood; in another he remarks on the sheer poetry of the waiter reciting the menu.

Wakefield makes a stop in Wintry City, a metropolis that mightily resembles Chicago. It’s there, amid all sorts of frivolity, that the novel, despite its crazy wit, takes a turn to the serious. Wakefield has been hired for a gig at the World Art Museum, where the exhibit is defunct Communist-era dissident art, and it’s there that he meets Susan, his guide, and Susan’s parents, Aleisha and Slobodan Petrovich. The disputatious married couple—she’s Bosnian, he’s Serbian—embody the endless, mindless discord of the Balkans. Wakefield and the Petrovich family have conversations about a Romanian émigré, Professor Teleskou, a scholar who was assassinated in the bathroom across the hall from his university office.

Readers may wonder why so many passages in the middle of this comic sendup of the American scene are devoted to the somber story of Teleskou. The tale of the Romanian professor is not fiction: Ioan Culianu, a Romanian émigré and professor at the Chicago Divinity School, was murdered, execution style, in a men’s room in May 1991. The event was surreal, but not in any way comic, and Codrescu cannot treat the assassination of this gentle, scholarly Romanian as something merely funny. The extempore speech that Wakefield delivers in Wintry City is free verse. A lot like Codrescu’s free verse, in fact.

There are two nervous systems that go by the name “road” in America, says Codrescu. One is the neo-cortex network of interstates “that sucks cars in at one end and spews them out another”; the other is “hidden, vestigial, nostalgic,” the roads of Wakefield’s youth. In a passage of penetrating lyricism, Codrescu describes Wakefield driving “all day and all the next night though Iowa, Missouri, a bit of Oklahoma, winter brown giving way to green, snow to rain, dark mud to hard, cracked soil, then the land becomes the desert. If he can succeed in finding again the hunger and curiosity of his youth, he might beat the Devil yet. Back then he didn’t care about money or comfort or even company; he was moved by something awesome and divine.” What Andrei Codrescu describes is the quintessential American trek—on the road again with Johnny Cash and Jack Kerouac—something that can’t happen in Switzerland or China, but only here.

American’s greatest culture critics have often been foreigners. Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting from France, and Frances Trollope, touring from Great Britain, penned enduring portraits of American social types and American institutions, but neither had the comic intelligence of Andrei Codrescu. As a writer, he’s too bright to be merely funny, too funny to be purely intellectual and, above all, too randy and outrageously sexual to be taken seriously by the high priests of American literature.

Codrescu’s weakness is that he loves America. He loves its geographical vastness, he loves its unimaginably diverse populations, he loves its insane contradictions. It’s a forgivable weakness.

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