Reviewed by Marion Winik, Fri., Dec. 1, 2000
by Eric Bogosian
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $23
Known for riveting monologues and plays that get inside the heads of various fringe characters -- a rock & roll promoter, a drug dealer, a radio shock jock -- Eric Bogosian tries out his shtick in a new genre with his first novel, Mall. In Bogosian's apocalyptic vision, the placid center of suburban consumer culture is shaken by tremors of perversion and cruelty and finally explodes in a fiery volcano of ungodly violence. Call it Bed, Bloodbath, and Way, Way Beyond.
Mall consists of 56 short chapters that rotate between the points of view of five characters: Jeff, an alienated stoner with nasty friends; Donna, a horny housewife with an eating disorder; Danny, a yuppie businessman with an underwear-catalog problem; Michel, a Haitian immigrant security guard with a hole in his heart where his wife once was; and Mal, a speedfreak with an arsenal. Then there's also Barry, the schlub tuxedo salesman, Adelle, the sick teenage bitch, and a host of local police, firemen, and state troopers, who serve mostly as corpses.
Dear Mal. We meet him in Chapter 1 when he looks up from his BarcaLounger where his mother has brought him his fish sticks on a tray. He pulls out a .22 semiautomatic, and blows a hole in her lung. "Now who's going to clean this up?" she asks as she crumples to the ground. Her last earthly thought is that the doctors were wrong: Mal isn't better.
Stopping only to torch his house and knock back a quart of flavored half-and-half and a box of Oreos, Mal the Unbetter heads to the mall. Trouble follows. Actually, trouble is well under way: Donna's downed a dozen doughnuts and is trying on blouses in a department store fitting room when she realizes someone is watching through a crack in the curtain. Titillated, she makes sure Danny will have a serious boner when he's apprehended by the cops. Meanwhile, Jeff has taken a hit of windowpane from his not-very-good friend Beckett, and Michel is musing sadly about the death of Marie. Then Mal shows up, stopping first at the tuxedo shop from which he was fired a while back. Bad news for Barry. As the store bursts into flame and the emergency gets under way, the handcuffed Danny is abandoned in the back seat of a police car, a ready target for random cruelty.
Bogosian is an impressive writer: Whether picking through the detritus littering the crabgrass on the outskirts of the mall parking lot or setting the scene in the bar of the Ramada Inn across the street, his details are dead-on. Jeff's acid trip contains some hilarious moments as he tries to sort out what is going on inside his head from what is actually happening without and tries to figure out whether it matters if he thinks at all. I need a drink, he concludes at last, as several other characters have before him. This is classic Bogosian. Meanwhile, Mal is hunkered down in the landscaping, picking off state troopers and firemen.
If Bogosian's characters tend to the archetypal, they are still carefully drawn; the backstory on Michel's experience with his wife's illness is particularly effective. If there's a problem, it's that the author doesn't seem to like any of his creations very much. He keeps them at arm's length as he moves them through their intersecting paths, providing the God's-eye view of a cynical and disenchanted deity.
As the characters dance their pas de deux -- Michel locks in on Mal, Donna meets up with Jeff, Danny set upon by Adelle -- we begin to lose hope for them all, not just because of the guns and the blazes but because no one seems able to manifest much in the way of human decency. So the very small act of kindness which closes these pages comes as a big surprise, and for this reader, a redemptive one. MallEric Bogosian