The Mad Joy of Butcher Shop Chic : STRAIGHT THROUGH THE NIGHT<i> by Edward Allen (Soho Press: $17.95; 270 pp.) </i>
Chuck Deckle is the baby who fell out of the tub while trying to throw out the bathwater. He comes from a moderately privileged family, went to Hotchkiss and an ultra-progressive college, experimented with group living on a farm or two and marched for various leftish causes.
It was a comfortable inauthenticity, a subsidized playpen for the privileged young. And in a few years, by rights, he would have drifted with his playmates into an even more comfortable inauthenticity on the other side: a job in advertising or law or banking, a yuppie life style.
Instead, he short-circuited. On one of the marches, he had punched an elderly counter-demonstrator who was carrying an American flag; the man’s false teeth had popped out. Suddenly, seeing the old man’s empty pink gums--by color association, the sight made him temporarily impotent--Charles had a conversion.
He dropped out. But it wasn’t the conventional romantic Bohemian dropout. It was a dropout to an equally romantic, entirely artificial dream of a Middle America; shopping malls, close-in suburbs, industrial pollution and Archie Bunker opinions.
“Straight Through the Night” is a novel about Deckle’s quixotic and utterly loony pilgrimage in search of the American norm. He will become, he concedes, the person pictured in beer ads and television sitcoms, the conservative backlasher constructed by opinion polls, the bluff, lower-middle-class chauvinist that East Coast journalists continually surprise themselves by discovering.
Edward Allen’s novel is a disconcerting mix of wit, powerful irony and fearsome overwriting. Deckle’s quest, increasingly nightmarish, is clouded by confusion. Sometimes he seems to be the author’s alter ego, sometimes his butt. He is by turns a touching flesh-and-blood figure and a zany caricature.
Dizzy with talent, the book continually loses its bearings, starts anew and goes off on tangents. It is a work of brilliant parts--blazing black satire, a tender realism and an exalted rhetorical grandiloquence--whose transitions and relations to each other are muddy and imprecise.
Chuck, renouncing the connections and advantages that his upbringing might have brought him, falls vertiginously through the air. When the book begins, he has taken on and been fired from several jobs as a meat cutter. He is hopelessly slow with his hands.
“The problem I’ve always had in the butcher business,” he tells us, “is that I was never very good at cutting meat.”
Nevertheless, he persists. As the story proceeds, he will work in two small packing houses, a slaughterhouse and a kosher butcher’s. Meat is bedrock, somehow; it is authenticity. And when the least sulfurous of his short-tempered bosses demands to know what he’s doing in the business, he modestly replies: “Trying to improve, I guess.”
It is absurd, of course. As he describes himself, “I am a moderate Republican intellectual.” He is hopelessly out of place; for example, he remarks of his fellow workers: “I have known lost souls in the meat business with their faces so buried in the New York Post that they forget that the Dreyfuss Fund exists.”
That is comic caricature, but comedy is only one level of this many-leveled novel. To work in meat is the centerpiece of poor Chuck’s fantasy about the American norm. He is happiest among the ghastly scenes and the rough camaraderie of the slaughterhouse. When he is fired for not having proper union credentials, he muses:
“It would have been a good place to work, to live a normal life, with my name stitched on my pocket and plenty of stories to tell at parties and maybe, in a few months, a good used car.”
This normality fantasy is of a piece with Chuck’s imaginary love affairs with television ingenues, and his vigil in his suburban apartment on Christmas Eve. He turns on his Christmas tree at the same moment that the TV screen shows the Rockefeller Center tree being lighted.
It is of a piece with his pleasure in McDonald’s--"It is impossible to have serious thoughts there"--and shopping malls, where “there was nothing in the world worth worrying about.”
“Everything was being worried about by . . . professionals of the worry industry and the indignation industry and the moral fervor industry; and I know these were fake clocks without machinery set at three minutes to midnight.”
In the same spirit, he reads The New Yorker ads but skips the serious commentary. He is consciously trying to fashion himself into as a post-modern yahoo.
He has a brief affair with an overweight nurse, who leaves him as soon as she gets thinner. He dreams of taking her for walks in the fetid New Jersey marshes. He insists that their refineries and industrial stink are beautiful. They make malls possible, and fast-food outlets.
The Jersey Meadows, he says, are “our secret land to explore, because everybody else hates it, on which to walk hand-in-hand in no particular direction, perhaps to see the light of commuter bus tail- lights shine in the eyes of muskrats.”
Chuck’s loonyness grows darker and darker. He works for a crooked New Jersey meatpacker who puts him on a killing schedule of 16-hour days, picking up meat and delivering it. From there, he goes to work for two kosher butchers, refugees from the death camps in Europe.
They are maniacal bigots. They scream at Charles continually; their grotesque vindictiveness is fueled partly by his inefficiency but mostly by his condition as a WASP. They see in him a potential conductor of pogroms.
And, by the time they fire him, the deranged Chuck has begun to sneak into the supermarket and draw swastikas on the gefilte fish jars. Clinging to wisps of gentility, he takes pride in not drawing them backward, as less-educated bigots do. And he wears a cutout Izod crocodile pinned to his collar; it is his WASPy amulet against his employers’ own cabalistic mysticisms. When he walks out, he screams anti-Semitic epithets.
“Straight Through the Night” is a brilliant, self-destructive civil war; sometimes it is simply a mess.
The author is capable of grotesque wit and quiet irony. He is capable of an absorbing realism; many of the passages on the meat business are fascinating. There is some genuinely beautiful writing; the evocation of Manhattan’s meat district at 4 in the morning is haunting. And there are long, unbearably overcharged passages reminiscent of the purpler writings of the late Thomas Wolfe.
The book’s principal, unsurmountable defect, though, is Allen’s inability to define what he wants Chuck Deckle to be and to represent. At times, we see him in a vein of sympathetic portraiture, a man of an odd idealism struggling, failing and disintegrating.
At other times--most of the time, perhaps--he is a figure of wild parody. What he is parodying is never really clear. Is it the pretensions of both liberal vision and the conservative vision? Is it the folly of being sucked into any of the political or cultural fantasies retailed in our public discourse?
I think Allen wants to signify all of these things, because he has all of them to say and they’re all worth saying. But he can’t have them all. He has written an impressive book that he does not yet--it is his first--quite know how to write.