Falling Up the Stairs by James Lileks (E. P. Dutton: $19.95; 310 pages)
Literature is a lot like a party. You open a book like going to a party; sometimes as an obligation, usually scheming to meet someone fun and new, and (best-case scenario) hoping to spot Ms. or Mr. Wonderful across a crowded room.
Not to belabor this too much, but you can get stuck in some "great man" poker game in the front room with, say, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Larry Woiwode, Mr. Flanagan--they're bluffing and raising, stacking up their chips, and after awhile, who cares?
And, you know how women like to gather and swap stories of marital horrors and secret loves and ungrateful children? You can find them hanging out in the back bedroom, talking in whispers, and it's fun to go in there, to giggle, or cry.
But out in the kitchen, under bright lights, opening their 28th can of beer, you find the boys and girls who love a party; who would chop off a finger before they would pass up a pun; who tell tall stories because they have to; whose stories run to getting caught in bed with the other man's girlfriend (or vice-versa), or to murder by dropping a plugged-in television set smack into somebody's bathtub. The people who write these fun books rarely win prizes; they may not even sell that many copies. But they are the backbone of literature. Their sheer love of story floats the whole enterprise.
James Lileks' "Falling Up the Stairs" begins with a premise that's totally dopey, and then spirals on out from there. He invents Jonathan Simpson, a journalist from the Minnesota boondocks, left by his wife, fired for his practical jokes, who inherits a crumbling mansion, Marvel Manor, in downtown Minneapolis. This goofy old house has a platform that chugs up and down the ancient staircase (hence the title) and is occupied by two terminally picturesque servants, Grunewald and Trygve, a cook and butler left over from the old days, as well as the alcoholically repellent Cousin Oscar: "His face was fleshy, spotted with a drinker's blotchy blush, and his skin tone spoke of a diet of poor food and lots of it. . . ."
Having been introduced to Marvel Manor and its tenants, you think--why not?--that the novel will deal with them, but this is really a picaresque narrative of sexual adventure and "food terrorism" more or less tastefully (?) folded up together.
A ghoulish group with the pleasing acronym AIL is convinced that white flour and refined sugar kills. AIL intends to hasten the process by poisoning processed foods. Poor Grunewald soon falls into a coma while tasting a packaged bundt cake. Jonathan is incensed! He loves Grunewald; he's gotten a job on a Minneapolis low-prestige weekly throwaway and finds himself hot on the trail of these crazy food terrorists, where he comes in to direct competition with Marya, a gorgeous co-ed who works on the high-prestige university daily where Jonathan is still known by reputation.
Marya ("Her red hair was unruly, scraps of apple peals rolled in rust and cinnamon, and it fell to her shoulders in wavy hanks . . . .") will do anything for a story. When she falls in bed with Jonathan, is she looking for love or a new line on her resume? Jonathan himself is hardly the soul of chastity, finding old girlfriends and new, putting on clothes that "smell like a deep-fried bar rag," meeting dubious suspects: "From his posture it looks as though he had to pick the asphalt from his knuckles at the end of every day. . . ."
Of course, the AIL villains have been underfoot at all times during this novel. When they are unmasked, the reader can do nothing but shake his or her head and mutter a perfunctory "tsk tsk." It's a ludicrous plot turn stuck in by James Lileks just because he likes the idea. But by this time the author's voice is so likable, his hero so endearing, that you can forgive just about anything.
Let's be straight. "Falling Up the Stairs" has very little redeeming social value, and about as much "high purpose" as a visit to Sea World. But you read it with a smile on your face, and you wish Jim Garner was 25 again so that he could play the part in the movie.