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A tossed cigarette lights a fiery satire's path

September 28, 2008|Jim Ruland

The Butt

A Novel

Will Self

Bloomsbury: 368 pp., $25

When WE succeed, nothing is less interesting than our intent; but the same cannot be said when we screw up. It's hard to imagine a scenario more profoundly snafued than the one Will Self has created for the protagonist of his latest novel, "The Butt."

At the end of a long vacation in a distant land, Tom Brodzinski unwittingly opens a perilous new chapter in his life when he makes good on his promise to quit smoking by flinging the butt of his last cigarette from the hotel balcony.

Unfortunately for Brodzinski -- and his wife and four children -- the nicotine missile catches fire in the coif of a guest named Reginald Lincoln the Third. Though Lincoln is an Anglo like Brodzinski, he is a dual citizen by dint of his marriage to Ataya of the Intwennyfortee mob and a member of the Tayswengo, one of the many aboriginal tribes from the interior of "the great desertified island-continent."

The stakes rise as Lincoln's health deteriorates and Brodzinski is dragged into a court where he is ordered to compensate Ataya's tribe to the tune of a couple hunting rifles, a few cooking pots and $10,000. The rub: He must travel several thousand miles to the country's interior -- where tribal insurgents openly wage war with one another -- and make the reparations in person. To add insult to injury, Brodzinski's traveling companion is another ensnared Anglo: a suspected "kiddy fiddler" with psoriasis named Prentice to whom Brodzinski justifiably feels superior:

"Watching Prentice squabble with his quick-bitten fingers at the cellophane on the fat red pack of cigarettes, his fish-belly-white face haunted by cellular need, Tom felt, once again, a surge of righteous pride at his own sterling efforts to break the addiction."

Though Self's landscape is his own invention, Brodzinski's odyssey parallels the Coalition of the Willing's misadventures in Iraq and bears a strong resemblance to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Self's world-building is so thoroughly strange that reading "The Butt" approximates what it must have been like for Conrad's readers to journey into the Congo.

Moreover, Self gives his characters enough peculiar quirks of speech as to invite comparisons to Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange" -- and let's just say the similarities don't stop when Brodzinski disembarks from his SUV.

For all the energy that Self spends constructing this fearful new world, Brodzinski is a staggeringly apathetic hero. He is propelled by forces beyond his control, but he neither misses his family nor feels lust toward a woman who looks exactly like his wife and who conveniently crosses his path throughout the novel. Brodzinski can't even muster the will to dispatch the book's weakest villain -- the eminently loathsome Prentice -- though he certainly knows it's in his best interest to do so. He's like Hamlet on Prozac, sniffing at the rotten foundations but unwilling to act.

There's far too much going on in this wicked satire to filter it down to a single set of references, but Self is interested in exploring why we do things that we know are bad. Sometimes it's what we do (going to war); sometimes it's what we don't do (looking the other way when people are being enslaved). Self's shocking conclusion amounts to a scathing indictment that will leave many readers wondering if they too are guilty of the habit.

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Jim Ruland is the author of "Big Lonesome: Stories."

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