If a synapse-frying, hyper-caffeinated visionary heads to Hollywood to become a screenwriter, does he make any sound at all?
The maddening silence from Mark Leyner over the last 14 years suggests not. The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is the mind-bendingly musical postmodernist's first novel since The Tetherballs of Bougainville in 1998. The screenplay he wrote for the John Cusack satire War, Inc. hardly seems a fair trade.
How big a deal was Leyner before his West Coast disappearing act? When Charlie Rose wanted to discuss the future of fiction in the information age back in 1996, he assembled a panel of Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Leyner. Wallace's Infinite Jest had just been published. The Corrections was five years away. Leyner had already written the decade-defining Et Tu, Babe and My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, thin books so overstuffed with laughs and language and love that each paragraph generated a thrilling Slurpee brain freeze.
Long before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert grabbed the cudgel of irony to blast through our decaying national discourse, Leyner's electrifying, exuberant fiction burst through all narrative conventions, alive to every moment, and seemed to promise a new way forward, savaging celebrity culture while reveling in the hallucinogenic clutter.
Much has changed in 14 years, and Leyner predicted most of it. The grotesque carnival of reality TV, the disconnected jousting matches on cable news, the triumph of advertising, Nicki Minaj, Pinterest — we live in Leyner's America. Would that The Sugar Frosted Nutsack took it on.
Instead, from the title on, Leyner seems sadly content to coast on sophomoric humor and to gather low-hanging punchlines. His jittery, genius pose seems like a carbon copy of the real thing: still smart, still funny, but aimed off-target and therefore a little out of date. It's as if Jerry Seinfeld took a decade and a half off and returned with more jokes about airline food.
The plot of Sugar Frosted Nutsack is really a mere vessel for Leyner to riff, like a song in the hands of a jazz master, forever looping back around on itself.
The Gods and Goddesses, obsessed with turf wars and minor jealousies, forever toying with humans and determined to live atop the largest building in the world — as close as they can to heaven — reside in a chic Dubai high-rise. The titular "Nutsack" doubles as the name of an imaginary epic about the Gods' current human obsession, Ike Karton, an unemployed New Jersey butcher.
Leyner riffs like Ornette Coleman: intense, rhythmic, theatrical. His sentences are twisty and windy, packed with puns and consumer products and pop culture and self-consciousness, and any attempt to replicate the Pop-Tart and Katy Perry chorus sugar-rush fizz of his prose will only get the self-conscious part right.
So why does this book feel like flat Mountain Dew? An exhausting structure that builds through repeating the same paragraphs doesn't help. (He jokes that the phrase "Sugar Frosted Nutsack" appears 3,385 times in these 247 pages, but it might not be a joke.) Neither do punch lines about Charlie Sheen, 2 Live Crew, Miley Cyrus and Billy Joel's Movin' Out, which feel ripped from a Leno (or Carson) monologue. And there's a foulness to Leyner's more scatological humor, which hits like a teenager trying to get away with using a dirty word in a term paper.
When the Gods all talk at once, Leyner writes, "it's this Babel, this incomprehensible cacophony, that just degenerates into white noise." Too much of Nutsack has that same feel. We need Leyner the prophet, the cultural seer — not another set of prostate jokes. From/usatoday