The monster in the man

Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

BY day, Zenzontli is the Keeper of the House of Darkness of the Aztex, whose future as world-conquering, shameless colonialists and slave sacrificers looks bright. They've long since triumphed over the Spanish and now in the 20th century are using Nazi-inspired techniques to enslave nations around the world. In his nightmares, however, Zenzontli is a worker at a Farmer John plant in Vernon. He works (sometimes double shifts) on the killing floor, slaughtering up to 1,800 hogs a day. Sometimes, he reflects, the animals squeal "that shrill high-pitched porcine shriek, but I can't bother to notice stuff like that any more." Ghosts of fellow Aztek warriors, like his bodyguard, 3Turkey, work around him. In the evenings, he attends union meetings. His marriage is not so good. His once-beautiful wife spends her days drinking Trader Joe's wine. His beloved son has become a punky gang member. "He won't say anything real to me these days," Zenzontli laments, "or when he does, half of whatever he says turns out isn't true. He doesn't want anybody to know what he's up to, his hair cut off his head like a hardboiled egg, running the streets all the time with his so-called homies."

Zenzontli is proud of his heritage. His ancestors are the Tolteka, "who invented the Heart As Engine of Urban Renewal, the revitalization of Reality, while the European savages were scurrying around inventing toylike items such as the Wheel, the Cannon, the Stirrup, etc." His city is Teknotitlan, city of bike paths and canals. But, writes Sesshu Foster in his hallucinogenic novel "Atomic Aztex," Zenzontli has gone too far. As the book begins, Zenzontli is facing, at the insistence of his Clan Elder, "a spot of brain surgery, Kranial Boring to release Xtra spirits" that are causing his excessive violence.

This is when the nightmares begin. The question is: Which reality is worse? In his life as a warrior, Zenzontli has been sent to fight with the Jaguar Unit in Russia, 1942. His suicide mission on a tractor plant in Stalingrad, quetzal feathers flying, is destined for success: "[T]hese Germans don't have a chance here in Stalingrad. Cuz they're just going along, doing their job as they see it, not expecting the unexpected, then some Aztek warriors jump out at them!" Back in the meatpacking plant, he's recruited by a beautiful union organizer, Nita, to get signatures for her petition, which he does, believing that he is fighting the "stupefying consumerism" of his nightmare world. Zenzontli's two universes conflate when he takes his butchering out onto the streets of Los Angeles, achieving notoriety as the "Skidrow Slasher," leaving behind "mutilated victims." The term, he believes, is "insulting, frankly, think about it, considering the religious quality of my work, the Surgical Accuracy, the removal of specific glands & bodily organs of special significance at particular points in time, palpitating them in my hands while the Victim went into shock & shook."

Zenzontli is Beowulf, the monster incarnate, an archetype that reappears throughout history. "What does it mean to be a man?" he wonders out loud, angry at Nita for asking him such a question. "[S]omething in my mind feels like a monkey ... scampering back and forth inside my inner life.... You'll be looking for something in your inner life, some truth about your situation, in this world or some other level of existence somehow, then you'll have to take care of some other Business, and when you turn around, when you go back and check your inner life again, just watch, ... [s]ome part of your interior life will be ... lost cuz of the monkeys. I don't know what you can do about that."

Books like "Atomik Aztex" require slightly different reading skills from more traditionally written novels. The parallel realities, the lack of warning about shifts in time and place, the characters with multiple personalities can make you dizzy if you struggle too hard to keep all the details in line. Instead, you have to let go and let the writing wash over you. "Don't worry," Zenzontli raves in his very first monologue, "if you don't get it the first time, it all repeats, as you shall see."

Recording events, writing things down and claiming knowledge and expertise don't make bad stuff any less likely to happen. There is, Foster reminds us, no way to escape. "This happened to you already & it will happen to you again in the future," warns Zenzontli. That, of course, is the one true source of despair, in this and every novel ever written -- the fact that we keep repeating our mistakes, big and small, regional, global, physical, emotional, again and again and again.

With "Atomic Aztex," Foster slices through history. His Aztex are not so very different from the Spanish colonialists or the corporate greed-mongers or the Farmer John pig butchers. "Everybody knows," he acknowledges from the outset, "that atavism and savagery make the world go round." For Foster, as a writer, the best strategy for fighting back is to rip up the language we use to confuse and obfuscate and dominate and otherwise destroy decent human civilization. He is not the first writer to use odd spellings -- all those Ks and Xs and Ts -- to arrest our normal reading patterns. And he is not the first artist to explore the fantasy life of someone working on a factory line.

But Foster -- who is also the author of a collection of poetry, "Angry Days," and "City Terrace Field Manual," which merges literature and urban anthropology -- puts his finger here on a particular nexus of World War II-era racism, factory life and the landscape of Los Angeles and then claims it, like Sir Edmund Hillary on Everest, for his very own. "I could explain this to you in a Mayan coffeeshop with full orchestral accompaniment (replete with yowls of anguish, agony, gurgling, choking from the Victimology Choir)," Zenzontli tells us. "We have access to the meanest, nastiest, psycho Gods through voodoo, jump blues, human sacrifice, proletarian vanguard parties, Angry Coffeehouse Poetry ... plus all our armies, Flower Warriors, Jaguar Legions, Eagle Elite Units.... "

Zenzontli is not a likable guy, or even a character you will care about, though he will call your attention to what it might be like for a powerful man to work in a slaughterhouse. This may make you think about factories and where your meat comes from. You may look at working people differently, think twice about the shape of a face or the historic quality of the simplest gesture. You may even consider the circular shape of the Mayan calendar and the circular nature of history (like a hamster wheel), the Aztecs and their feathers, the Nazis and the ritual of human sacrifice, video games and warriors and the vague, context-less quality of war on TV. As if it all boiled down to power, and conquest. As if there were, anymore, such a thing as winning. *

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