Across America, the arrival of spring is often heralded by a snippet of scratchy, high-pitched music that chirps from loudspeakers of ice-cream trucks as they trawl the streets for customers. These tunes take on a kind of spiritual, devotional quality, so attached are they to feelings of hope and nostalgia — summer nights gone by and those to come. But what if the first occurrence of that looping sound was in fact the foundational moment of the universe?
In Mark Leyner’s “The Sugar Frosted Nutsack,” his first novel since 1998, it is indeed the low humming of “something akin to the Mister Softee jingle” that trillions of years ago marked the appearance of a motley cast of gods and eventually, the creation of humanity. If this sounds crazy, be assured that it is far from the oddest idea to emerge from this madcap, profane, and sporadically enthralling postmodern myth of heaven and earth.
Leyner’s gods owe something to the villainous and lustful creatures of Greek mythology, to the frightening demon gods of Hinduism and Buddhism, and to the petulant and demanding deity from the Abraham story. Yet unlike those conceptions of the divine, they are essentially unserious and desultory creatures. They have names like El Brazo (god of virility, urology, and pornography), Doc Hickory (god of money), and XOXO (a stand-in for the authorial voice, who likes to “mess with people’s minds” and ply them with “drugged sherbet”). It is as if the cast members of “Jersey Shore” were given innumerable powers, everlasting life, and an entire cosmos on which to enact their boozy, sexed-up wills.
From their current home atop the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, these frisky gods turn their attention to Ike Karton, a middle-aged, unemployed, Jewish anti-Semitic butcher and low-rent New Jersey lothario who is about to have a bad day, at the end of which, we are told, he will be gunned down by agents of the ATF or Mossad. That’s about as close as the novel comes to a plot — and even that promised ending doesn’t actually come off. Readers hoping for a traditional narrative may be bewildered or enraged. What we get instead is a kind of farcical Genesis story filtered through the lower forms of reality television and grocery-store glossies all in revved-up language, much of which cannot be printed in a family newspaper.
The book’s central irony is that Ike’s gods are themselves manifestations of the capricious celebrities that he so despises. In Leyner’s hands, every famous person — from all moments in history and regardless of their achievements or crimes — is equally powerful and equally terrible. The Bee Gees and Bela Bartok, Miley Cyrus and Wagner, Freud, Popeye, and Tonya Harding — and dozens more, all pass in and out of this demented gospel of celebrity.
It should come as no surprise that Leyner’s metafictional gambits become exasperating at times. The text is filled with repetitions and reverberations. All the names are printed in bold. The style switches to the form of instant-message conversations, tabloid headlines, or webpage comment sections. People speak backward at one point. In one of his innumerable flourishes, Leyner lays out his novel’s manifest flaws, “its excruciating redundancies, heavy-handed, stilted tropes and wearying cliches, its overwrought angst, all its gnomic non sequiturs, all its off-putting adolescent scatology and cringe-inducing smuttiness.” Does Leyner believe his own criticisms? At one point in the proceedings, Leyner poses and then slyly answers an essential question: “Are the Gods real or is Ike Karton just crazy? And the answer is: Yes.” To take his lead: Is this novel both wondrously imaginative and maddeningly unreadable? Is it both a trenchant satire of a venal, celebrity-mad society and a self-aggrandizing emptying out of the writer’s own deep bag of literary tricks? The answer is: yes.Ian Crouch is a contributor to the New Yorker magazine’s sports and culture blogs. He can be reached at iancrouch