Matt Dojny, The Festival of Earthly Delights. Westland, Mich.: Dzanc Books, 2012. Fiction. 400 pages. Illustrated by the author. ISBN: 978-1-936873-692.
A Book Review of Matt Dojny’s The Festival of Earthly Delights:
Who Can Take Him Seriously?
I don’t really know how to do a book review, though I like very much to “review” books. And since it’s that time of year when the literati and pretenders like me make lists about the best books of the year, I promised to abandon my Christmas plans if Karen Lillis included my book review of Matt Dojny’s book on her site, which is—let’s be honest—nicer than my site.
I only need to figure out how to really review a book. Well, then: form. The Festival of Earthly Delights is, eh hem, an epistolary novel (look it up) written by the protagonist, one Boyd Darrow, to the enigmatic Hap, whose identity you’ll eventually figure out. Boyd and his girlfriend-who-is-pretending-to-be-his-wife, Ulla, are young American expats in the imaginary Asian country of Puchai, where they both hold jobs in education, just as good Americans abroad often do, though Ulla is on the professional side of things.
What I really hate about writing book reviews is plot summary, so I’m going to skip it. The novel is a comedic novel. Epistolary and comedic. You’d be right if you guessed that there’s going to be all kinds of trouble, ranging from whacky food-tasting rituals to toilet humor (in one episode, I almost thought to myself, Enough, Matt! But, then, with further consideration, I thought, Well done, Matt! Well done!), from language mishaps to your usual foreign escapades involving drugs and whorehouses. Drugs and whorehouses are common, right? Boyd Darrow is utterly likeable, and we go wherever he goes willingly. He’s not an idiot. He’s not annoying. He’s just a young American abroad. Who lives with a girl named Ulla. In my opinion, one should always beware of women with names like Ulla. Generally speaking, women with the following names should be avoided: Ulla, Pippa, and Joss. Use your own discretion with Zoey.
In the short time I’ve got here, I’m going to focus on two aspects of this book: its comedic status and its rendering of the American expat abroad (Lordy, I love talking about that one).
It’s a comedic novel! Which means, in brief, it’s funny! You know, we’ve got to be serious for a second, and think about what this means. The comedic thing can be problematic. A bit of a stigma. I can’t remember where it is exactly, but I know that somewhere my own Love Slave is labeled comedic.
I don’t know about Matt Dojny’s response, but my response involved some disgruntled balking. Somehow, my writerly credentials were called into question. My legitimacy was at stake. Yeah, yeah, I read Catch-22. Yeah, yeah: Catcher in the Rye. In one of my non-review reviews, I grappled with the issue. The book was Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and I asked—with all sincerity—“Am I a humorist?” (The review can be found here: That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore.) Because maybe being a humorist isn’t such a good thing.
(Someone, incidentally, publically responded to my review by writing, “In answer to your question, No, you are not. ” I’m still suffering from that one.)
I’ve come to terms with the comedic thing. Dojny probably already has. There’s smart funny (which is marked by smarmy, sexy, true moments that contain beauty and sorrow and wit) and there’s dumb funny (sitcom TV with titles like “My Four Dads’ Sisters and Their Gay Neighbor” or “My Gay Neighbor’s Dad and His Four Sisters”). Funny, when funny is good, is smart. And Dojny’s prose is smart. Humor may be the best way at getting at this human thing, the core of what it means to be human. It seems like it’s the funny people who often see things more clearly. It’s not that they take life less seriously or that their light-heartedness is superficiality; rather, funny people are—dare I say it?—pretty damn perceptive, able to see nuances in behavior and thinking that other people miss. Fools!
If you can’t laugh at a good joke about excrement, something might actually be wrong with you.
Yeah, this book is funny. I’m thinking that the trick to humor is honesty—about everything. This is one super simple example. Ulla wakes up and says to Boyd, “I was just having a horrible nightmare. I was in a super-dirty bathroom, and my bare butt accidentally touched the wall.” I’ve had this dream! But here’s the important thing: though you’ve probably had this dream too, you may not know what to do with it. Dojny turns it into a comic moment, an honest moment. The gifted writer takes the common (like the bare-butt-on-dirty-surfaces nightmare) and renders them uncommon (magical moments abroad). That’s a real festival of earthly delights. Djony, gifted writer, does orchestrate a festival.
Let’s move on. Americans abroad! First, they are so freakin’ funny! Second, my first book—which is not comedic so don’t expect to laugh—is about expats (Shameless Plug: it’s called The Freak Chronicles). Third, I thought Dojny’s rendering of the American abroad was great. There are too many fine passages to quote from; I’m just going to pick a few. Though it’s common to draw upon the strangeness of food, Dojny does so with just the right tone. He’s gentle, without arrogance. He writes about Ulla’s fondness for this one dessert that’s like a “hot-dog bun filled with soybean ice cream, then smothered in creamed corn.” Sounds gross, but you’d probably like it too. I know I ate worse in Africa. There are bowls that emit the smell of “a hot burp, with a hint of black licorice.”
He captures the fear, the trepidation, the goofy white-kid-among-non-white people thinking which is heightened in extreme [foreign] situations. When a bunch of teenage malchaks (the politically-oppressed group, because there always is one) do potentially dangerous teenage stuff when Boyd walks in their part of the imaginary exotic locale, Boyd’s thinking goes like this: “I tried to compose my features into an expression that said: I’m just a gareng [foreigner] on my way home, minding my own business. I don’t think what you’re doing is cool, but I’m not judging you, either. It’s not really a big deal. Just don’t get anybody killed. I’m a visitor from New York City, the ‘Big Apple,’ so, believe me, I’ve seen much worse. . . I don’t view you as ‘the other.’ I know that the same blood runs through all of our veins. You may not have realized this before, but I know that you realize it now, as you look into my eyes: I am not afraid.” Boyd tries hard to communicate all of this in one facial expression, and this sums up what Dojny does in his rendering of the gareng experience: he captures a vast and complex collection of wild, important experiences in a series of quick, often funny, moments.
Well, he’s funny, but can he write? I like this line: “I woke up this morning with a mouthful of rubies.” Isn’t that what a good comedic novel is like? A mouthful of rubies? Think about it, reader.
I wrote my own little list of the Best Books of 2012, which was really the best books I read in 2012. However, my first choice was actually written in 2011, and The Festival of Earthly Delights was my second favorite read of the year. But since it was, in fact, written in 2012, it’s fair to say it was my pick for the Best Book of 2012! Yikes, that felt a little like a mouthful of rubies too. Don’t try to read this final paragraph aloud.
Summary: this is a really good book.
Guest Review by Jennifer Spiegel
Author of Love Slave (September 2012, Unbridled Books)
and The Freak Chronicles (June 2012, Dzanc Books)