Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, January 5, 2009

David Ohle, _Motorman_

I HAD NEVER heard of Ohle until quite recently, when I read a review of his newest book, The Pisstown Chaos.  The reviewer devoted almost as much space to discussing this one, Ohle's first, as he did to the new one, so I thought, "hmm, perhaps that's the one to read." And so I acquired a copy of Motorman, first published by Knopf in 1972 and now in print again thanks to 3rd Bed and Calamari Press.  Three cheers for them.

Motorman fits loosely (very loosely indeed) into the post-apocalyptic genre, with comic and surreal streaks. The number of suns and moons in the sky varies, as does the number of one's hearts. No information of any sort from any source is reliable, and a large part of the population are "jellyheads," barely functional, continually leaking, vaguely ominous.

Our hero is named Moldenke.  Much of the novel is his trek through "the bottoms" to reach the clever, benevolent Burnheart, whose generally cheerful, encouraging letters are interspersed throughout.  Progress towards Burnheart is impeded by the choleric, hectoring Bunce, whose irritating habit it is to echo sardonically whatever Moldenke says:

"I'm beginning to itch."
"He's beginning to itch."
"Sores on the underthigh."
"Sores on the underthigh, he says."

Moldenke is also encumbered with help from one Roquette, who sometimes insists he is Roquelle, and who may be Bunce (he occasionally falls into the echo trick). He is kept moving not only by the hope of finding Burnheart but also by the hope of reconnecting with his girlfriend, Cock Roberta, whose letters also occur in the text from time to time, sometimes with the punctuation spelled out ("Indent, Big Y, You forgot to remember me after the War, period"), which has a strangely disquieting effect.  

We never learn whether Moldenke finds Burnheart or Roberta, or what disaster visited this world, or even whether Moldenke is the motorman of the title -- he visits a "motor room" in chapter 55, and seems familiar with the workings, but we don't know what the motor runs or how he acquired his familiarity with it.  During the Mock War?  At the Texaco National Gauzeworks?  We don't even know whether the information and documents we are given are provided in chronological or some other order.

With all these questions left unanswered, why is the book so sad, so funny, so grim, so comical, so lyrical, so readable? How does this structure of language and imagination hold together as enchantingly as it does? Brief as it is, less than 150 pages, it has more to it than any other post-apocalypto I can think of.

My edition of Motorman has a great introduction by Ben Marcus, which among other points usefully insists that fiction writing, like any art, needs experimenters, and without them will fail to thrive.  This book is certainly experimental, yet the copyright right page also tells us that an excerpt was published in Esquire. Ah, those were the days.  What publication with Esquire's circa 1970 circulation would come anywhere near publishing something like Motorman now?

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