Chicago writer Denny Braintree’s car skids on Vermont snow and crashes. He stays overnight in a Montpelier motel managed by the blind owner, Betsy, Homer Dumpling’s aunt. Marge Plongeur is high on life, celebrating something that Denny mistakes for having met him. With Denny’s accident, he has no wheels, and good-time gal Marge sends him out on a condom and cigarettes run in her Rambler, while she swings from the chandelier and makes use of the Jacuzzi. Bumpkin police officers Lance and Nick suspect Denny in Marge’s disappearance after they find circumstantial evidence that she’s been pushed off his motel room balcony. In a televised version of this comic mystery, Peter Sellers, Columbo and Monk would team up with the Keystone Kops.
Knowing that Denny has no car, Lance and Nick try to find him at the airport, where Nick sees who he thinks is longtime friend Homer Dumpling, whose “manatee on land” 230-pound form fits Denny’s sea-cow description. Denny-as-Homer convinces Nick that he has been in Florida for three years, after laryngeal surgery, thus altering his voice. With mistaken identity running rampant in the Vermont capital, Denny’s schemes are laughably plausible. He moves into Homer’s house and comes face-to-face (well, face to full monty) with Homer’s longtime girlfriend, Sarah. There’s a “little” detail that he couldn’t have known; Denny can’t fool Sarah as he does other villagers. Each time Homer’s acquaintances ask if Denny remembers something, the ad-lib expert repeatedly responds: “How could I forget?”
Fully exposed to Sarah and her new friend, policeman Lance, Denny further finds himself in a tangled web of deception. For “all his intention to adopt Homer’s behavior, he was not succeeding. He was fooling people, yes, but not because of successful imitation --- how could he imitate a log?” Denny thinks of himself: “It was a shame that people didn’t enjoy his company more. He had so much to offer. Puns, for example. No one could match him in that department.”
With a name like Homer Dumpling, Denny thinks lowly of him. Ultimately, he meets “his lipophobic nemesis.” Homer waits for him with a shotgun: “I don’t care how well you represent me, because you’re not me. You’re a body wearing my name. The only me is the person walking around wherever I’m walking around.” Ultimately, Denny’s body snatching becomes “altruistic impersonation.”
David Carkeet (author of two young adult books and six other novels, including DOUBLE NEGATIVE, part of the Jeremy Cook series that has just been reissued by Overlook Press) captures the gestalt of each writer’s tangential thought trains --- even those derailed. Denny writes about model train displays and uses those as microcosms of his interpretation of reality. AWOL from his magazine writing job, he is fired.
Carkeet’s over-the-top, hilariously serious protagonist is why the term avant-garde was created. Be attuned to every detail; Carkeet ties loose threads into a beautiful gift bow. Further details would be spoilers, as each seemingly unimportant thing Denny observes bears fruit in this artfully crafted mystery that borders on literary fiction.
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy (DeanMurphy@Verizon.net) on January 22, 2011