To attempt a detailed plot summary of Jon Methven’s relentlessly inventive debut novel would be folly, so I’ll stick to the essentials.
A plane carrying 162 passengers loses power and makes a miraculous emergency landing in the Hudson River, propelling the pilot to instant media stardom. It is here that the novel departs, rather hysterically, from recent real-life events. The crash, it seems, is a stunt engineered by a diabolical public relations man, known as Blackie Spin, to save the failing airline. Two passengers — a disgraced celebrity reporter named Lucy Springer and a man named Normal Fulk, who traffics in celebrity semen — get wise to the hoax.
The novel is a satire of American culture that includes vigorous jabs at all the relevant low-hanging fruit: reality TV producers, craven network executives, corrupt politicians, FBI dummkopfs, and so on. But more impressive than the brilliant sendups are those moments when Methven focuses on the internal tribulations of his sprawling cast. His reluctant hero, for instance, is a drunken womanizer whose appetites outstrip his spiritual resources. As he prepares for his starring role, Captain Hank Swagger frets.
“He was not suitable to counsel his own children. How could he minister to a nation? He was a pilot, not a motivational speaker, and this seed grew into a terrifying tree of perplexity. That an ordinary man who had fought in no wars, who had overcome no terrorist hijackers, could be built into this mythic beast by the sorcery of deceit, of modern technology, and optimal timing. Who was he? He had to watch the television to know for sure.”
Beneath the snappy dialogue and quirky plot twists, Methven is posing a profound question: What happens when a country can no longer live up to its own mythos? When the American infatuation with industry and self-reliance gives way to passive consumerism and fakery?
His answer is that it becomes susceptible to canny demagogues such as Blackie, for whom truth is irrelevant to the construction of reality. “I gave them a story, some fiction or faith, whatever you prefer,” he explains to one of his acolytes. “A miracle they can watch on television, they can read about on the computer, that will always belong to them, to their history. I gave them a hero that reminds us all of what we are capable as a species. And one day, many years from now, that hero will exist after you and I are gone.”
If there’s a design flaw in this picaresque, it’s a creeping cynicism the author sometimes shares with his smooth-talking villain. There are no heroes in the world Methven has crafted, only scoundrels and fall guys. His people are easy to laugh at, but harder to sympathize with.
Which brings us back, I’m afraid, to the semen trafficker. Normal’s driving ambition is to retrieve from the downed plane a vial of John Lennon’s genetic material he had to leave behind, which will fetch untold riches on the open market. Fame worshipers, we’re told, have turned to celebrity you-know-what as “something new, something profound, which is what America is all about — servicing the profound.” The verb sounds right, anyway.
Methven keeps the plot humming, all the way to the sticky end. He’s an exciting new voice, and I sensed, beneath the gags, a seriousness to his work, a desire to grapple with the private hopes that swirl beneath our national delusions.
I suspect Methven will continue to produce lively satires. The question is whether he wants to produce books that are morally important, as well, that will endure. I hope so.Steve Almond, whose most recent book is the story collection “God Bless America,” can be reached at stevealmondjoy@