Character Flawed

My Favorite War. Written by Christopher John Farley.Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Hardcover $20.
By Piers Marchant

THE BIGGEST PROBLEM with first-person narration is precisely the same thing that makes it most attractive: its unyielding, single-minded focus. The limitations of the character's perspective infect, for better or worse, the knowledge and dispersement of information in the novel. The trick is either to have a character with a power of clarity so strong that you can transcend the limitation, or steep the book so thickly in the mind of the narrator that the voice bewitches. Done properly, one can write a masterpiece (Lolita certainly comes to mind), misjudge and he ends up with a tight, claustrophobic world. Christopher John Farley's first novel My Favorite War ends up somewhere in the middle, too tight to cover all of its ambitiousness, too loose to come to a satisfying conclusion.

The protagonist, Thurgood Brinkman, an intellectual black journalist living in Washington, D.C., circa 1990, is stuck in a brainless job writing current culture items ("Korean miniature pigs were hot, hot, hot") for a (barely) fictionalized national newsMcpaper called National Now! Rutted in the morass of his own huge expectations and envious of the success some of his former college schoolmates have achieved, Brinkman rails hopelessly against all the meaninglessness in his life. From the pulpit of shoddy junk culture, Farley slings it straight. At his best, the satiric riffs on our culture's wasteful pointlessness are wickedly funny. Brinkman's little piece of misery manages to encapsulate the particular problem befalling the members of the post-Gen X tragedy: So what do we do when we do start to care about our lives?

Brinkman's escape route from all of this is linked to his obsession with an Afrocentric Washington Post columnist Sojourner Truth Zapader, whom he eventually follows to the freshly engaged Gulf War.

Farley's prose crackles with ideas. He pulls snatches of lyrics, poems, treatises from everyone from Nikki Giovanni to Rilke. The trouble is they all come spurting out at once. You get the idea he can't write fast enough to catch everything that's going through his head. The effect can be jarring and disassociative. Brinkman's voice is impressive in its desperate grasping for meaning; but it often gets drowned out, too full of its own sound. Here is Brinkman's quick, quippy description of his boss: "She is so overweight it looks like any moment she might give birth to Marlon Brando and a Buick Roadmaster." This is a novel of capitalized Proper Nouns. Every reference has a name and every name a suggested quality. In the course of the novel, Farley touches on race, gender, philosophy, the conflagration of the media, the capitalist military machine, and even male and female relationships. The novel does not flag for ideas, it inundates you with them. For every interesting paragraph--exploring, say, Marcuse's idea of self-destruction of the black identity--that rings in your ears, there are five more that you flip right over.

In writing a novel about the shoddiness and immediate gratification of our society, Farley falls prey to the condition he laments. In the end, we've been showered with so many names and ideas, we're left numbed. Farley's volleys, which are numerous, can be funny or silly, but they can only achieve a point that's already trite: Our live-fast consumer culture is forever chewing everything up into smaller and less sensical pieces. My Favorite War takes to task an immense amount of material, and the result is an enigmatic mish-mash of free-floating ideas. Farley, himself a journalist for Time magazine, can cut deep paths into our understanding of the media and its underpinnings; but a novel has to be successful on more than one level to really resonate.

At times, Farley succeeds, and the writing becomes powerfully eloquent. He deftly demonstrates Brinkman's personal struggles weighing pitifully against the struggle of the Iraqi soldiers' march across the desert, defeat in hand, being blasted by the United States even after a cease-fire has been called. Here's one of the few times Farley lets the weight of his material overwhelm Brinkman's quippy, over codified voice: "We saw miles and miles of blackened bodies, shattered limbs, melted windshields...a woman whitened by fire, her skull stripped of flesh by tongues of flame, her jaw open, caught in some sort of awful scream or laugh."

Unfortunately, too many moments of genuine consequence are lost to the ever thrumming engine of Farley's prose. As a human-interest story, the novel falls pretty flat. Brinkman has significant difficulty connecting with the various women in his life, but his treatment of them seems so disdainfully superficial we hardly care. By the end, he seems roughly in the same shape he started out in: lost, miserable, ready to run to the next Big Thing in order to get out of the pop-culture quagmire. His is a nightmarish world, all the more so because of his trenchant inability to see beyond it. TW

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