Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Pike's Folly by Mike Heppner



This is an essay I wrote about Mike Heppner’s second novel, Pike’s Folly, for Patsy Moore in 2006.  Shortly after, I met Heppner at his home in the Boston suburbs; a few years after that I participated in a panel about his Man Talking series that also included the drummer from Rush, Neil Peart.  Some of my writing here is cringe worthy, and some of it is outdated in light of events which have taken place in the world since it was written, though for the most part I still think Heppner is seminal.



Pike’s Folly by Mike Heppner (2006)

            On the first page of Mike Heppner’s second novel, Pike’s Folly, we’re introduced to the “excitable man”, Rhode Island tycoon Nathaniel Pike.  Pike employs what could be eitheralert pragmatism, intentional shiftiness, or downright sleaze depending upon your perspective.  He finishes a sentence with “…and I say that to you as a fellow Republican.”  Informed that his partner in conversation isn’t a Republican, he quickly shifts course with “Oh.  Then I say that to you as a fellow Democrat.”  This is perhaps a nod to the Joseph Heller of Good as Gold.  Indeed, a few pages further in, we learnt that another character with attachments to Pike is reading Heller.  This is an interesting technique, both acknowledging the master and having the character acknowledge them at the same time, and it immediately activated my radar to be on the lookout for more of it (which I believe we see, later on, in regards to both Phillip Roth and Richard Yates).  This is just one of the numerous, rich multi layerings that Heppner employs, with the result that the novel is infinitely flexible to many different readings and interpretations.  Just as there are kinds of writers, so there are kinds of readers, and there’s something for everyone in Pike’s Folly.  Roland Barthes once wrote a 150 page book about a story of Balzac’s that’s just thirty pages long, and I can easily imagine this new novel by Heppner accommodating such a project.  The book is highly enjoyable precisely because it could be read simply at face value, as entertainment, or analyzed in great depth in the jargon and manner of the many “-ism’s” of theory. 
            Pike is the focal point around which a very funny, interesting, and recognizable human cast of personalities revolve, scheme, maneuver, and jockey for position.  Enormously wealthy, Pike seems to undertake mammoth development projects for no reason, with no purpose whatsoever.  Here, he build a K Mart in the boondocks of nowhere, the New Hampshire wilderness.  His opportunistic assistant is a novelist named Stuart Breen who has published one novel and is having a hard time getting a second off the ground.  Stuart’s wife Marlene is an opportunistic exhibitionist whose cravings to be seen naked in public are rapidly becoming less and less controllable. 

            The other significant moneybags in the state – and, by the way, the local color and flavor of Rhode Island are communicated with great nuance and skill – is Greg Reese, whose old money family (really old – centuries old) is the force behind the charitable Reese Foundation, where all is not as smooth as it seems.  Reese’s daughter, Allison, is sliding between various forms of recreational drugs while her boyfriend, heath, aspires to filmmaking and has a special affinity for Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and the unfinished masterpiece Smile.
            Around these six main characters Heppner builds an apologue that’s amusing, serious, satirical, and observing.  Many interesting supporting players buzz around the principal six like mosquitoes, trying to influence the course of events as much as they can and, interesting as the main players are, the others often stand out a little more vividly.  There’s Henry Savage, a Washington hack who meditates, in a hilariously self pitying moment, that men and women of the US Government agencies aren’t “evil automatons with computer chips planted in their brains”; Celia Shriver, who, at sixty seven, still displays her enthusiasm for political rallies and who has one planned for Pike, calling him a “canker sore” ; an unnamed counter girl in Dunkin Donuts who gets exasperated about giving a lost traveler some directions; and quite a few others.  Very much a colorful human landscape – the ensemble of players suggests the analogy of a master drummer playing virtuoso fills between the other instruments in the group.


            Significant parts of this novel are concerned with the cinema (Heath Baxter is an aspiring auteur, and Pike had film production in his past) and, as he did with Joseph Heller, Heppner demonstrates that he himself is as versed in the subject as his characters are.  Besides a voluminous knowledge of movies, the author has an ability to do what screenwriters are supposed to do – show, don’t tell.  That is, make word pictures that ring true in the reader’s mind.  I’ll cite just one resonant example among many.  Stuart and Marlene are having an argument: “Both she and Stuart were standing with their fists balled, their foreheads almost touching.”  While I was reading Heppner I was concurrently reading a novel by Theodore Dreiser and I was amazed at the contrast in styles, how Heppner could say in one sentence what it would take Dreiser three ponderous pages to get to, and not only that – though Heppner’s story is greatly concerned with politics in various ways, it’s never preachy or sermonizing.  A character began her political career in DC but she was “way too raw and unabashedly partisan to make it inside the Beltway, where nothing ever happened without compromise.”  Again, I smiled at how, in Drieser, this simple truth would never even be acknowledged; politics would be presented as a fight to death, with definite winners and losers.  What a contrast!
            Another major subject the novel takes up, as is natural in our times, is the nature of the internet and how it’s changed and affected all of our lives.  It does this in two important scenes, both humorous – first, when Marlene becomes a “celebrity” on a website devoted to streakers and nudists, and, second, when Heath does an online, real time interview with fans after he moves to LA, towards the end of the novel.  Anyone can draw their own conclusions as to what Heppner means to imply about the nature of the web and its impact on the culture, but what I thought of immediately is how these ultra modern, up to the minute examinations of life right now contrast with the brief scenes in the novel that describe events of hundreds of years ago, scenes that gradually fill us in on some horrible events of the past, and what is common and similar in the lives of those colonial peoples with our own contemporary existence.  The DNA, if you like, hasn’t changed. 
            For purposes of easy identification I’ll try to point out some of the themes and issues the novel as a whole takes up, and sort out which character or characters are involved in each.  This list is not supposed to be exhaustive or final, but rather a starting point for anyone interested in looking at this most absorbing book in some level of detail.  I  noticed: the nature of democracy and the political process (Celia Shriver, Cathy Diego, Allison Reese and others want to organize a huge anti-Pike demonstration; numerous members of the Rhode Island lawmaking contingent owe Pike money; Henry Savage is a Washington lifer); the saga of a family’s skeletons in the closet, family history (the Reeses); the nature of the contrast of appearances and reality (all is  not quite what it seems with Pike, as well as with the Reeses, as well as with a certain house that stands at the apex of the tale; Marlene is at her core being not at all what she appears to be); the relationship between a mentor and a mentee (Brian Wilson to Heath; Pike to Heath; and Heath to Stuart); issues of what does and does not constitute a successful relationship (Heath and Allsion; Marlene and Stuart; Carla Marshall and Bill); the usefulness of artists sharing ideas on the artistic process (Heath, Brian Wilson, the French chef Lucien; even Heath and Marlene in a weird kind of director-actor relationship); the tortured genius (Brian Wilson; Heath, marginally).  These are all worthy angles. 
            Before concluding: a point for the literary theorists among us who might be hungering for a little indulgence in structuralism or deconstruction.  In the opening scene Nathaniel Pike observes: “If I were a fruit, I’d be a banana.”  Interestingly, somewhere within the next fifty pages another character is also compared to a banana.  What’s the point?  What’s the symbolism of the banana?  How is it used as a metaphor to tie one character to another?  Granted, not everyone is interested in this kind of self indulgent exercise – but for those who are, it may well bear fruit!

            Pike’s Folly is impressive – sharply observant, daring, not afraid to tackle large and relevant questions, and entertaining too!

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