TITO PERDUE’S first published novel, “Lee,” follows one Leland Pefley, a septuagenarian misanthrope disgusted with the decadence of modern times, on his return to his native Alabama. With a head full of literature (12,000 volumes, by his count), a self-bestowed “Dr.” before his name and a heavy cane, he wanders through his hometown, his only companion the recurring specter of his dead wife, Judy. Over the course of the book, he beats several people with his cane, urinates through a car window and burns down a house. In the end, we find him wandering in the woods on a cold night, stripping off his clothes and, presumably, dying of exposure.
It is a sordid tale. It is also a compact, virtuoso performance, singular in its depiction of one of the more pretentious, grandiloquent protagonists gracing the pages of American fiction. (“Lee” is being reissued in paperback to coincide with the publication of Perdue’s new novel.) Leland Pefley has been compared to Ignatius J. Reilly, the hero of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” but it might be more apt to consider him a sort of reverse-polarity Don Quixote, as consumed by his delusions and romantic notions as his Spanish forebear, but with a decidedly different approach to life: Whereas Quixote sees a bygone age everywhere and gets beaten up for it, Lee sees a bygone age nowhere and beats up others for it.
“Fields of Asphodel” picks up where “Lee” left off. Freshly deceased, Lee awakens in the woods in an anti-world not unlike the one he’s just departed. He has a heavy stick, two pairs of glasses, good shoes, a suit and a Canadian coin the size of a pie. “I died,” he says, “I’m quite sure that I did ... and so then why, pray, am I still producing thoughts, hm, why?” Good question.
The premise of an afterlife presupposes a moral reckoning, and so one of the pleasures of “Fields of Asphodel” is wondering whether Lee has landed himself in an inferno, paradise or something in between. Whatever it is, there are other people there, some living in villages and cities, and early on Lee gets into an argument with several of them about the nature of the place. While one posits they’re being put through a trial and another claims that they’re already in hell, Lee’s theory is more Lee-like: “What we have here, gentlemen -- and I’ve been thinking about this in some rather considerable detail -- is a recapitulation in cold weather of man’s progress on earth.”
Lee’s less concerned with moral reckoning than he is with tracking down his deceased wife. Judy’s ahead of him somewhere, leaving a trail of torn pages and red ribbons for him to follow. As in “Lee,” she functions as a guiding light, an immaculate ideal, except that here he cannot summon her specter at will.
Despite death, Lee remains much the same. He is still plagued by hemorrhoids and dogs. He urinates in anthills and fixes on strangers his “12,000-book glare.” When he joins a roving band of “second-rate egotists,” he refuses to walk among them. His ostensible search for anyone or anything conforming to his values continues unabated, and he’s properly disappointed at every turn. Even when he encounters someone his age with a similar intellectual bent, the two declare themselves enemies -- because the man is a Latinist and Lee prefers the Greeks.
The landscape moves gradually toward the modern age, but for the most part the narrative proceeds by a kind of dream-logic, with repeating elements (the moon, restaurants, queues, lizards, cabbage) pervading a general confusion, brilliantly depicted by Perdue. Lee stumbles through barren settings, warehouses, barns and offices. He witnesses variations of “post-mortem career[s],” including, cleverly, two firing squads executing each other in an endless loop.
Eventually, signs indicate that Lee’s reckoning is near. He becomes subject to a sort of low-grade comeuppance. A bureaucrat examines his file and declares: “Says that you have always behaved in your own self-interest, but have always expected everybody else to behave from principle. Hey, that doesn’t sound good.” And when he finally has the opportunity to meet his beloved ancient Greeks, he is forced to conclude that “by no means was this that ‘small world of fine people’ for which he had been yearning all his life.”
Certain satirical elements take center stage as this anti-world begins to resemble our world, and here the novel stumbles. Lee visits an island populated by a group of anti-imperialist culture-of-victimhood lesbians -- an astonishingly tone-deaf caricature. Later, he strikes down a publisher, and she complains, as he is striking her, that “it just doesn’t seem realistic.” Well, it doesn’t -- if an ax isn’t exactly being ground here, a hatchet or two is being sharpened.
In the end, Lee hardly achieves “that toleration said to be the final result of wisdom,” but he does get a glimpse of a tailor-made paradise, assembled for him by a god figure in the form of a candy store confectioner.
And what of moral reckoning? In an utterly charming and brilliantly comic penultimate scene, the god figure praises Lee for his temerity, declaring it a rare quality. “I didn’t know You’d like it so much,” says Lee. “You’re not supposed to know,” says the god figure. “That’s why it’s temerity.”