One could thumbnail The Pisstown Chaos, David Ohle’s third novel in thirty-odd years, as a dark-comic fantasia, and the author himself as a long-term toiler in the fields of postwar American experimentalism. And yet he remains elusive, far more obscure than he deserves to be, and the book, like the rest of Ohle’s small oeuvre, is a bit hard to account for. His first book, Motorman, from 1972, could be situated within the vein of Barthelme et al.; but what came after—well, what came after was silence. Decades passed, the debut accruing cult status all the while, until the appearance of the extraordinary The Age of Sinatra (2004), a kind of sequel to Motorman, set in a dystopian future America and crafted, seemingly, on another planet.
Pisstown follows to some degree on Sinatra’s heels, after a gap of only four years, and makes with the previous works a disjointed trilogy. If you think the Bush years have been bad, wait until the era presided over by Pisstown’s Reverend Herman Hooker, whose pseudotheology accommodates both the nonsensical and the sinister, with proverbs like “Travel is the serious part of frivolous lives” and “Too much learning is a dangerous thing.” His administration’s brief is twofold: to quarantine the innumerable poor bastards infested with parasites, which over years turn their hosts into living-dead “stinkers,” and to destabilize the populace with continuous “shiftings” and forced matings. Society’s ills include rampant violence, scant power beyond that provided by human-pedaled flywheels, and a mania for the repugnant commodity of tooth gold, harvested on occasion from the living. The diet consists more or less entirely of starch bars, eel, grasshopper, something called urpmilk, and various cuts of imp, a creature that the cagey Ohle avoids describing physically but that behaves, like his universe, in both playful and savage ways.
Unlike the writer to whom he is most often linked, William S. Burroughs, Ohle eschews radical prose play; the characterization of his writing as experimental derives from his grim absurdity, the flatness of his characters and tone, and his rejection of traditional novelistic arcs. His style is approachable and precise; he writes with dry humor in detailing the bizarre: impregnation by suppository, a Russian giant receiving a leech treatment, a job deliberately misfolding parachutes. Like Burroughs, however, Ohle locks on to dehumanizing situations and processes; his characters speak in a benumbed, perplexing blend of blank Americanism and stilted B-movie dialogue. And check the baroque carnage chronicled in the popular newspaper the City Moon:
After an evening together at the Bones Jangle a steam press operator and his stinker paramour returned to their hotel, The Gons, where he plunged a knife into his companion’s body. She, in turn, quickly unsheathed the blade from her taut, sunken belly, and plunged her lover twice. Still, they laughed until other guests complained.
The faux-journalistic deadpan of these entries, which echo the stories in Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator, sets the tone for the book’s approach to emotional life and humanism, and the chapter openings they comprise provide some of the book’s finest writing.
Pisstown resembles the United States at the turn of the last century; we encounter patent medicines, house hands with names like Red Cane, and a lack of indoor plumbing, from which the scatologically obsessed Ohle seems to derive no end of pleasure (I have never read a novel with so many enemas and colonics or a writer with such a grasp of the erotics of discharge). This last emphasis is to a point, however. In foregrounding both the abjection of the body and desperate small power plays, Ohle recalls Beckett. In particular, he does so during the book’s single eruption of nuanced psychology, when one of our heroes, a simple young man named Roe Balls, accidentally plunges headfirst into a latrine while trying to retrieve his only wad of cash. As things get grim (“That’s when I got sick and vomited the first time”), Roe begins to panic, hallucinates, and is struck by a feeling unglimpsed in the rest of the book, one of a lesser order and all the more human for it. He is embarrassed:
I thought that the waste might start rotting my skin. I worried about catching diseases. But the main thing I started worrying about was, what will Grandmother think when I get out? I was humiliated, extremely shamed. I was mortified. I thought about suicide. It might not be worth getting out if Grandmother was going to tease me and make fun of me. And I knew she would. I felt like ending my life right there. It wasn’t worth coming out. . . . But I didn’t kill myself. I waited, and I cried until the dawn finally came and I saw the first light through the hole, the hole that led up to life, real life, not life in the pit.
Roe’s account of his ordeal, offered to a magistrate trying him for the crime of “privy dipping,” stands in for a conventional climax. It seems that Ohle wants to show the reader that the toy-theater cutouts he moves about so masterfully could, with a shift of light, reveal a third dimension at any moment. They don’t, but the possibility of our being made to feel causes the tale to turn quite bleak, and Ohle’s rich black comedy becomes, as you go on, a bit harder to laugh at.
Domenick Ammirati is a writer living in New York.