Bowl of Cherries

Nov 7, 2007 at 12:00 am

"My stomach rumbles, not in sympathy with the now distant thunder, but in protest of last night's dinner: fish rot and scorpion salad, the jail's blue-plate special," Judd Breslau writes early on as the penman of Bowl of Cherries. "I hardly have the strength to wave at a buzzing fly. Soon, I console myself, it will be over."

The above might be less intriguing if Yale dropout Breslau weren't in his midteens and imprisoned in a brig made of human excrement — in Coproliabad, the capital of a forgotten Middle Eastern kingdom named Assama, situated within modern-day Iraq. Thoroughly and merrily absurd, Cherries jumps back and forth as Breslau chronicles his present-day death-row confinement and expounds on the unlikely chain of events that catapulted him into the arid desert. With his debut novel, 90-year-old wit Millard Kaufman spins a wacky, Invisible Man tale of happenstance, romance, scholarship and imperialist exploitation.

When Breslau's doctoral studies at Yale sputter out, he relocates to a dilapidated Maryland mansion and takes up with a communal band of eccentric miscreants seeking to telekinetically manipulate objects using musical instruments. There he meets and falls for the project leader's vacuous, comely daughter, Valerie Chatterton. He makes the acquaintances of Joseph Grady, an agent for capitalist consortium Resource Analysis and Technology (RAT), and Abdul, Assama's westernized prince. Skip ahead through a season of harsh Denver ranch-tending with his poetess mom and a stint writing RAT exec obits in NYC — it seems a White House-enabled delegation is figuring out Assama's masonry under the guise of granting the kingdom nuclear capabilities.

I suspect — wrongly, maybe — that the plot was Kaufman's excuse to run wild with a moldy, rat-gnawed thesaurus, to launch prose volleys like this description of shitware used by Assama's newly-crowned king: "He emptied the royal bowl. It resembled rusticated stone, which it wasn't, being of the same material that composed the palace and the rest of the public works. A speckled snake in hollow-relief sinuously encircled the vessel; the blunt head met the tapered tail and swallowed it to close the ring in a self-perpetuating, self-consuming paradox." Either way, here's hoping that second novel he's writing isn't too long in coming.