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Book Review : Reclaiming a Precarious Sanity on a Fantasy Island

December 28, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

The Sanity Matinee by Michael Zagst (Donald I. Fine: $18.95; 349 pages)

Al Sprayberry would appear to have a nice enough life. The corporation he works for does a lot of advertising, and Sprayberry sells that advertising. It's not a hard job and he makes good money doing it. Sprayberry seems lucky in his home life as well; he's married an ex-cheerleader named Terri Jean McMasters and he's "crazy about her." The young couple have an active sex life, marred only slightly by the fact that Terri Jean uses about 10 different methods of birth control at once. . . .

Yes, it's true that Terri Jean has a chain-smoking gorgon of a mother who cordially detests her son-in-law and who also employs a lovely Mexican girl for far less than the minimum wage. But that's life, you know? And it's true that at work, Sprayberry's immediate boss, a dork named Brisbane, takes credit for every contribution Sprayberry makes, but it's a meaningless job at a meaningless corporation, so why worry about it?

Always a Cheerleader

It's also a little disturbing that Terri Jean is still so trapped in her cheerleading identity that when the couple take an excursion to a local baseball game, Terri Jean just can't help it--she prances along the top of the roof of the home team dugout, making a total embarrassing fool of herself. But Sprayberry is "crazy about her," so again, what does it matter?

The year this story begins is 1976, the year of the Bicentennial, and sometimes it seems as if the whole country has gone ape-crazy, embossing American eagles on coffee cups and the Stars and Stripes on condoms (though Terri Jean condemns these items as blasphemous). But what does it matter anyway? There's nothing that Sprayberry can do about any of it, and by the standards of this crazy world, he's happy.

Except that finally, eaten away from without by his non-friends, his non-job, his non-wife, and eaten away from within as well by a very hungry tapeworm, Sprayberry collapses. For a long time he has been finding solace by watching reruns of "Bonanza" and other episodic Westerns, where problems are solved by a gun. Sprayberry brings a gun to a corporate board meeting, where finally he succeeds in getting himself declared "crazy." He is committed to an asylum.

He's Not Crazy

Of course it should be obvious to the reader that it's not Sprayberry who's crazy, but all the life around him that's crazy--an existence carried out by catchwords and cliches, reinforced by the author's deliberately stilted prose style: "All through lunch, she (his mother-in-law) fired up one cigarette after another while Terri and Sprayberry tried to swallow their food. Between the smoke and the perfume, it was a ghastly culinary experience for the couple. Sprayberry was a little angry. Just when he felt he had a handle on his diet, here was a setback. . . ."

But after Sprayberry is certified crazy, he's sent to an island where his companions may be crazy but at least they act in good faith. Sprayberry is able to take walks, look at the sky, make friends with the keepers and some of the inmates, and little by little, get his real life back again. The prose style dramatically changes from the detached, mechanistic sentences the author has used in the first half of the book, and the language itself begins to sound fresh and inviting. Sprayberry's fellow inmates ". . . dressed in pajamas and cowboy hats--he spotted someone in a sombrero--seemed to have a festive, outdoor snap in their faces. . . ."

Eventually Sprayberry gets well, and with the blessing of his keeper, "escapes." It's not that he's found sanity exactly. Indeed, one of his inmate friends, Nero, is sure that he comes from Saturn. Nero tells very nice stories about his home planet: "Jesus is a well-respected member of the Saturnese community," he tells Sprayberry. "He owns the only roller skating rink on the whole planet, and it's a very popular hangout for local kids. Having a monopoly as he does, he could charge anything, but I found his rates to be quite reasonable. Jesus runs it as a family operation, with his wife and two sons. . . ."

"Sanity Matinee" is less about sanity and craziness than about role playing. All of us, at sometime or other, have found ourselves going through the motions of life--while our minds, our real lives, are a million miles away; sometimes so far away that we've lost those lives entirely. That's the real tragedy of the human condition, the author reminds us, and through his weird, ironic narrative style, he insists that all of us deserve better. We deserve fresh air, friends who like us, spouses who love us, work that we love, and a country that's more than a commercialized joke.

The people who need to read this book--for comfort, for laughs, for alleviation of their loneliness--know who they are. They should search out "Sanity Matinee," because it's worth the trouble--worth its weight in gold.

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