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Justify Your Existence 

In his latest novel, Wakefield, poet and commentator Andrei Codrescu sees hungry people.

When Andrei Codrescu looks at modern America, he feels overwhelmed. So much material, so little time. What's a Romanian immigrant bent on social satire to do? Scribble it all down in a mad dash for fiction capable of matching the stupidity surrounding us all, for starters. The only trouble, he says, is sifting through an embarrassment of riches.

"Actually, things are so goofy sometimes I have to give myself hickeys to keep from bursting out laughing," Codrescu writes in an email interview. "Having a president who talks to God, an attorney general who speaks in tongues and covers up the breasts of statues in the halls of Justice, a nation traumatized by a televised nipple, you name it, we live in a Golden Age."

It is this Golden Age that Codrescu, the cryptic National Public Radio commentator, poet and Gambit Weekly contributor, tackles in his latest novel, Wakefield (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). The book includes thinly veiled references to his beloved adopted hometown of New Orleans, as well as an irreverent but sobering perspective on the droning buzz of a society that feeds on instant -- and constant -- communication. The title character is a wayward success; he travels the country delivering high-priced motivational lectures known for stirring doubt and anxiety rather than faith and optimism.

Wakefield offers a contemporary echo of a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, written in 1835, bearing the same title. In Hawthorne's tale, a London clerk disappears for 20 years from his home. All the while, he lives in hiding several blocks from home, disillusioned by the 19th Century -- an age, in his mind, of mechanized work eradicating quiet and contemplation.

In Codrescu's version, the wayward Wakefield lives in fin de siecle America, not England, and is sent on a surreal, cross-country odyssey courtesy of a deal with the Devil.

The novel begins when Satan comes calling one day at Wakefield's book-filled apartment in a city that is unmistakably New Orleans. El Diablo tells Wakefield his life is at a good stopping point. "You're a failure," Satan says. "Time to die."

Being a well-read man, Wakefield understandably begins bartering with Beelzebub; he offers his soul in exchange for a longer life. The Devil scoffs. He has plenty of souls. It is, after all, a buyer's market, he tells Wakefield. So an altogether different bargain is struck: Wakefield must find an undefined thing that proves his successful search for an authentic life, not the somnolent downloaded existence he's stumbling through when Satan steps in. Wakefield has one year to tap into a life of meaning. The confident Devil is so bored with eternity that he's hoping Wakefield may offer a surprise or two along the way.

With the foundation for skewering everyone from lesbian supermodels to paranoid dot-com slackers in place, Wakefield begins rushing through the American zeitgeist with headlong fury. He clambers onto planes stuffed with Super-Sized couch potatoes, disgusted by the "surf of fat beating against the tender shores of his body." He sleeps with attractive women who ask for little in return, certainly not commitment. He delivers top-of-mind lectures and, somehow, they work. The Devil pops in and out, alternately amused and disgusted by Wakefield's adventures.

Then again, El Diablo's world is hardly devil-may-care. He's dealing with his own existential pangs. Hell, it seems, is entangled in bureaucratic strife. The Old Goat, much like the weak-fleshed creatures he mocks, holds no sway over cell phones, computers, cable TV and the rest of the electronic clatter bleating and beeping in homes, cars, planes and everywhere else.

"I went from being revived at the Bolshoi to being deified by Khomeini and Falwell," he tells Wakefield. "Since then it's been a mess. A bunch of religious freaks spouting tacky rhetoric, demanding apocalypse-size work. I don't want to play World Ender for these lunatics."

Being from the land of Dracula, Codrescu drums up the perfect analogy for the wonky WiFi laptop era. Everyone's a vampire now, but they're not out for blood; the juice they need is for their computers, their cell phones, the power to check emails and wade through endless entreaties to partake of pornography and penis enlargements. Without our gadgets, we quiver, get the shakes, dread the horror of MTV unplugged minus the MTV.

Wakefield suffers from a surfeit of satirical subjects, if anything. Codrescu can't help but compose little NPR-ready essays on the follies of barely fictitious Midwestern towns with names such as Typical. He can't stop himself from slipping in polemics on the global village. And he can't stop Wakefield from discovering the most disquieting notion of all: quiet.

Of course, quiet isn't won without a life-or-death struggle. In Wakefield's case, he believes solitude -- listening -- might be the answer. Problem is, he can't hear it, since he returns from his travels and encounters a neighbor obsessed with constant home restoration. Perhaps Bob Vila could offer a cameo in the Hollywood version. As Codrescu himself points out, such struggles illustrate the tragicomic consequences of our world: We're forever plugged-in, but we remain forever hopeless. If only eBay could put quiet and introspection up for bid, we'd all have a Merry Christmas.

click to enlarge In a deal with the Devil, the title character of Andrei Codrescu's Wakefield has one year to tap into a life of meaning.
  • In a deal with the Devil, the title character of Andrei Codrescu's Wakefield has one year to tap into a life of meaning.
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