Satire flourishes in desperate times and is often the last refuge of a desperate writer. If that is so, Jeffrey Perso, the author of Water Bodies, is as accomplished as he is perhaps desperate. If satire can be broadly defined as that which mocks human vice or folly by means of derision, irony or wit, then Water Bodies is satire par excellence. Its targets are specifically American, yet its reach is truly global, for stupidity and wilful ignorance care little for national boundaries.
The narrator of Water Bodies has returned to his ‘muddy midwestern town sunk into the carp-rank banks of the Upper Mississippi River Basin.’ ‘Doctor John Voltaire, Professor of Biology and Freshwater Science at the University of Illinois-Chicago,’ appears to have arrived in his home town of ‘L’ in the nick of time. The good citizens of L have every reason to heed the traditional warning to fear death by water, as so many of them are drowning in bizarre accidents and cruel attacks by unknown assailants. In addition:
People of L were always drowning: drowning in debt, drowning in sorrow and tears, drowning in obedience, conformity, and consumerism. They were going under, unable to reach the surface; shackled, sunk, on their way down.
John has returned to help sort things out between his sister Lara and his brother Cristo, so they can decide what to do about selling the old family house.
It was the first time I had been back in L since my parents’ double suicide, one successful, one only partially so, mother moldering in the wet earth seven years now, father, brain damaged and soul dead, locked inside the insane asylum.
We need pursue the plot of Water Bodies no farther; suffice to say, things are not always what they seem in this water world of increasingly turbulent relationships and muddy thinking. Water Bodies surfs its metaphor and rides the wave: humanity is drowning in the rising waters of foolishness and entrenched ideologies, much of which is controlled and channelled by vested interests and governing elites focused solely on their own greed.
In inspired parallels with the contemporary moment, civic efforts follow the same old outworn policies that led to the trouble in the first place. Thus, the plague of drownings
required lifeguard and CPR training for all residents of L, the construction of concrete walls, wooden barricades, and electric fences, twenty-five feet high, alongside both east and west river banks … Also, the possibility exists for the creation of volunteer citizen patrols.
Fears surrounding an imaginary serial killer must be assuaged with yet more killing machines:
That’s why everyone should arm themselves, he said. The state had just passed “open carry” laws, and “everyone should get themselves to the local K-Mart or gun shop as soon as possible. Don’t call the police,” he said. “Don’t call 911. By the time they arrive it could be too late.”
At Liquor, Guns, and Ammo, a store whose name speaks for itself, the proprietor is selling guns as if he really does suspect there’s no tomorrow:
“Be sure to get here early,” the store owner told us. “They’re barely out of the box before they’re gone.”
“That makes me feel safer already,” I said.
Yet the town is under siege on multiple fronts. Respiratory disease, suicide and alcoholism are the major causes of death; the air is polluted and smoking is rampant; as for alcohol, ‘It is here that L reaches its zenith. For here can be found not only more bars per capita than in any other city in the country, but also more bars per square foot.’
Satire has its own particular undercurrents of moral outrage. While the tone of Water Bodies is dryly amusing, its anger occasionally floats to the surface. For instance, at a seemingly innocent and characteristically tedious Sunday church picnic, an obese boy is mercilessly bullied and tortured by a group of children under the benignly indifferent gaze of the adults. John concludes:
Yes, I had to admit, Evangelicals make the best bullies. Especially the Lutherans. The Lutherans and the Baptists. And the Catholics. The Catholics because there are so many of them, like an invading army. Onward Christian soldiers.
This harrowing episode is ‘just another storybook moment for the memory machine, just one more page secure in the holy holiday scrapbook, sacred pages memorializing the everyday, commonplace lives of the good people of L.’ As Cristo declares, ‘You learn a lot about a country and its culture by studying what is thrown away, what has lost its value. And by what is forbidden, what is feared.’ Thus, ‘These drownings are clearly the work of a satanic cult.’
That’s why [Lara] had decided to buy a gun. Something ladylike, but not just a fashion accessory. One that could do real damage. A pistol, a revolver, snub nose, maybe a Magnum or Deringer. She wasn’t sure. She wanted me to go along to help choose.
Sometimes it is hard to know whether to laugh or to weep. Perhaps that is the point of chapter 33’s description of scandalized citizens’ righteous disgust at a display of confiscated sex toys, a disgust which soon turns to fascination and libidinous desire. Surprisingly, race and class rarely raise their heads in Water Bodies, although we learn that
Hmongs jumped into the river and began to swim out into the middle of the black, wide, still flood-swollen swift channel, while the laughing, shouting fraternity brothers heaved heavy rocks picked up from the shore toward them.
This charming interlude is later mirrored by the veiled racism of remarks such as ‘back to the jungle’ with reference to a group of trespassing children – African American children, one presumes. ‘And so, life goes on, such as it is, even in L. The sun and moon rise and set; and rise and set again. Earth wobbles on its axis.’
Amid all this threat from inside and out, ‘If the choice is between security and civil liberties, I choose security. Don’t you?’ writes the improbably named Webb Civit, MD, whose false binaries replicate the appalling standards of US political debate in general.
Chapter 32 of Water Bodies is perhaps the heart of the novel. Is there anything as sad and true as this reflection:
“I just read somewhere,” Cristo recalled, “or heard somewhere, that the Vietnamese do not call the Vietnam War the Vietnam War – they call it ‘The American War.’ And then I thought, I knew, I understood that if that is so, then the Korean War is The American War, the Nicaraguan War is The American War, the El Salvador War is The American War, the Gulf War is The American War, the Kosovo War is The American War, the Iraq War, Part I and Part II, is The American War, Part I and Part II, the Afghanistan War is the American War, the War on Terror is the American War. The War on Crime, the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, all the wars I remember and all the wars I cannot remember or name—they are all The American War.”
The Earth rebels in Water Bodies just as it is rebelling in reality, ‘rejecting all it [has] swallowed.’ ‘The land just can’t take it anymore … it is in revolt.’ ‘The good, industrious, meat- and milk-loving people of L were almost literally drowning in shit.’ And all it has for political leadership is the dunce known as Mayor Rockton:
Some thought him “focused” and “disciplined,” that he “stayed on message.” But the truth was that Roscoe Rockton was actually quite dull, witless, unimaginative, ignorant, and dense. Once locked into an ideology he had no need to challenge assumptions; everything was already explained, everything was known, everything made sense.
Remind you of anyone?
Water Bodies’ serpentine digressions into apparent backwaters will confuse readers looking for straightforward narrative in which lots of things happen. Cristo’s ruminations are not for the faint of heart, and his Dostoyevskian wanderings with his brother through the L that is Hell will interest only those for whom the journey, and not the destination, is what counts. It is easy to foresee a major plot resolution but, thank goodness, that matters not one jot. One might also suspect that parts of the novel were originally conceived separately, especially a lengthy town council meeting where the novel sags a little before recovering.
No matter. Once in a long while, a writer seems to have been listening in on one’s own thoughts and quietly following one around for the past several years. There are few bad reasons for liking a novel, but there are plenty of tenuous ones, and I shall risk enumerating them in my own case: I, too, have tripped and fallen on a badly lit street in a US city (and fractured a finger), lying in the gutter until someone found me; I, too, have written about an Oldsmobile; I, too, have envisaged death in these terms: ‘I would put the notebook and bottle aside and settle back, close my eyes, and fall into a contented hypothermal sleep, never to wake, but only to decompose in the lovely woods.’ I feel surveilled.
Until recently, our old friend desperate times was wont to stroll hand in hand with the companionable qualifier such as our own. No more. The jig is up. Breathe deeply and you will detect the delightful aroma of burning flesh. Our shortlived Anthropocene is keeling over for lack of oxygen, tipping humanity into the Gehenna of history, a fatuous grin on its complacent face. Ah well, it was pretty bad while it lasted. ‘Weialala leia’ indeed.
Water Bodies is a bleakly enjoyable wade through the vice and folly that have got us into our catastrophic predicament. Its humour and wit are dry and acerbic; it meanders this way and that, revealing the illogicality and the primitivism, the superstition and the hate brandished by those who seek to expel, to exclude, to neutralize the demons whom they believe wish to devour them. But Water Bodies never strays from the central point that we only have ourselves to blame for what we have made of our world. Ladies and gentlemen, it is we ourselves who are the demons, and our name is Legion, for we are many.
Black Rose Writing | ISBN 9781684331994 (pbk)