It’s amazing to think of the transformation of the contemporary novel world over the past 20 years. Back in the 90s, giants like John Updike, Philip Roth, and Richard Ford still dominated the scene, each of their titles greeted with profiles in major publications, review inches, Terry Gross interviews, and bookstore end caps. At the time, I thought of these authors (along with Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom I exclude for reasons that will become obvious) as a sort of cultural center of literature, the latest group in a few hundred years of mostly white males who were bequeathed roles as our literary overlords, with us as willing or not-so-willing accomplices. I loved all of their works, especially those of John Updike. His novels had touches of Joyce, Emerson, and other greats from the canon, but also possessed a 60s preoccupation with male yearning that correlated enough with my own yearning to pique my interest. If you stack all of Updike’s titles that deal with men chasing women, the stack comes, not coincidentally, about to the crotch.
Then came the rise of the memoir, 9/11, Facebook, VIDA, and a book culture that was not going to abide white male peccadillos, and all of those well-drawn penises found their ways back into their collective notebooks. Literature with a capital L is no longer beholden to such masculine concerns, and for the better. Even contemporary white guy stalwarts like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides have learned the benefits of employing female protagonists, or male protagonists who keep their eyes distinctly northward. In short, if you’re a literary white male writer today and want to explore your libido, you’d better be Norwegian.
I think of these ideas in the context of M. Thomas Gammarino’s latest novel King of the Worlds because in it he continues the tradition of male protagonists who, among other things, have wandering eyes. The focus of King of the Worlds, Dylan Greenyears, is approaching middle age with a wife, three kids, a job teaching high school drama, and a desire to taste carefree living again. As Gammarino describes Dylan’s birth country of the United States in the not too distant future, when the place finally has its environmental act together, he could very well be talking about Dylan’s current frustrations as well:
Society appeared to be functioning better than ever, but there was a palpable lack of ambition and creativity in the air. In its place was a whiff of surrender and pragmatism that Dylan found at once tragic and impressive; America was at last becoming life-sized.
This mature, responsible world feels sadly complete to Dylan, too much given up for overall clean living. How, in such a universe, does one get dirty?
I should mention that in Gammarino’s future world, outer space is open for occupation, and Dylan is no longer an actual resident of earth. He lives with his family on a planet called New Taiwan, a space colony with weird inhabitants and customs that still feel too normal and earth-like for Dylan’s tastes. It doesn’t help that, back on earth, he has a distant past as a well-known actor, when he starred in a bawdy sequel to E.T. that had girls swooning in the aisles for him. He even has an old shoebox filled with fan letters from this glorious past. Deep in domestic malaise, he decides to connect with the women who authored these come hither letters. What a thrill for them to be greeted by a former star they had crushes on as teenagers, and what a temptation for Dylan. As he tells one of his drama students in the guise of acting advice: “Humans are a mess. We sob and puke and toil and sweat and die like the animals we are for love.” Dylan is ready for his close up with his own carnality.
As one might expect, shacking up with former fans doesn’t go well for Dylan, especially when a quasi-Mormon named Wendy finds little moral conflict in stealing a husband away from his family. When Dylan decides to take the plunge with her, the world—and the sin—he has invited in becomes clear: “Herein, he realized, was the essence of adultery: it wasn’t so much about the rutting bodies as asymmetrical access to information; it was the lying to, not the lying with.” Dylan pays plenty for his indiscretions, and in a way that mirrors the best from Updike’s work. The lying becomes small potatoes.
I haven’t talked enough about the hints of other greats like Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace that inform Gammarino’s style. These represent some of the funnest aspects of a novel that takes its fun pretty seriously. One gets the impression the author is channeling his heroes, borrowing whatever strikes him as playful or useful. While King of the Worlds might stand on the shoulders of these giants, the view from up there is both compelling and entertaining. It’s almost like looking back in time to a literary landscape that is long gone now. Or maybe into the future. We could do worse.