BOOK REVIEW: “The Shroud of the Thwacker” by Chris Elliot (2005)

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I’m a big fan of Chris Elliot. I think. I generally *say* that I am, and more than that I generally *think* that I am, and I’m *pretty* sure that I am, but occasionally - through no fault of his own - I can’t remember why. Then I doubt. Then time passes, workaday life makes my doubts fade, and I’m a fan again, until something causes me to dwell on it, then the doubts remain. The thing that (mostly) convinces me I’m a fan despite my vacillation is that I’ve never said, “Oh, I hate him!”

Christ Elliot is *probably* a comedy genius. I say “Probably” because it’s sort of trendy at the moment to say “It’s a shame the peak years of the man’s career were spent largely out of the public eye, his talents moldering on a shelf while Jim Belushi manages to be a star.” This is entirely true, of course, but since I didn’t *SEE* anything he did during his years on the shelf, I honestly don’t know. The people who make these kinds of claims are particularly unreliable. The kinds of guys who tried to justify liking the Tim Burton “Batman” by pretending to see allusions to Wagnerian opera in it, and who insist Tiny Toons is funny, and who pretend to like Andy Kaufman. Y’know: Jerks.

Kaufman is probably the nearest, neatest comparison: a character/performance comic who immerses himself in generally unlikable characters, and who gets uncomfortable laughs at our unease. The difference, of course, is that I never found Andy the least bit funny, not even in concept. Conversely, Chris can rattle off lines like “Phhht. I need another dictionary the way the Iliad need about a hundred more pages about Agamemnon,” and it’s just endlessly hysterical. Not because it’s so smart, but just because it’s so chaotic and out of place. So, yeah, I think Elliot is funnier than Kaufman, but that’s a low bar. Bottom line: I’m 90% sure I like Elliot, but I’m never quite sure why, and I’ve decided that’s part of the gag.

I was feeling pretty burned out on SF recently, looking for something ’Dane to read, and I stumbled across this novel for 50 cents at my local Salvation Army thrift shop. I stared at it in confusion for a few moment. Was it *that* Chris Elliot? Sure enough…fifty cents? A bargain! Wait, do I like him again? Hm….fifty *whole* cents? I dunno…. Ultimate, however, I decided to take the four-bit plunge based on the pleasant prospect of reading something that wasn’t SF, and which promised to be funny, by someone I was reasonably sure I liked, and whom I hadn’t realized was a writer.

Typically, half way through the thing turns into a science fiction novel.

The protagonist is Chris himself, writing in first person. Ostensibly the book is a memoir of his experiences, starting off in the present day, it follows him around some typical episodes of his life: his best friend is a carnie who blows himself up for a living, he auditions for a play, and he continually argues with Yoko Ono, who lives next door in The Dakota. Presently, out of boredom, he gets involved in trying to solve a more-than-a-century-old series of gruesome murders by someone called “The Thwacker” who terrorized Manhattan in the gilded age.

The book jumps back and forth between the present, and his third-person “Reconstructions” of the 19th Victorian events. Presently in the present, Chris realizes someone is following him, and the case isn’t as cold as he’d thought. He begins to fear for his life, and eventually he ends up traveling back in time, where he ends up taking part in the whole mystery.

I don’t really want to tell much more than that. Really, I didn’t even want to tell that it was time travel involved, since that doesn’t show up until half way through the novel, and it’s clearly supposed to be a surprise and a shock when it happens, but some bags must have their cats extracted in order to justify reviewing stuff on a Science Fiction Website. Sorry.

So how is the book?

It’s not bad. It’s not great, mind you, but it’s not bad. It doesn’t conclusively prove that I like Elliot, but it doesn’t argue against it either. One thing I really, really give him mad props for is that he didn’t fall into the “Douglas Adams Science Fiction Comedy Trap.” It seems like everyone who tries to do comedic SF immediately cops from Adams (Excepting, curiously, Eoin Colfer. Good for him!) and it’s just hopelessly derivative and tedious to see people try. And let’s face it, Adams himself wrote nine books, and he could only really pull that crap off about two and a half times. Seeing less imaginative people try to out-master the master is just embarrassing. Elliot doesn’t try. He maintains his own voice, which is a good thing if it’s a voice you enjoy. I’m pretty sure I do.

A running gag in the book are the deliberate anachronisms. The idea seems to be that Elliot is an idiot (itself a running gag) who really did no research at all for his ‘reconstructed flashbacks,’ and thus he keeps making references to buildings, people, movements, and places that didn’t exist at the time. In particular, he’s got a lot of gags involving a kerosene-powered cellphone. In a probable nod to “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Teddy Roosevelt keeps referring to famous things he hasn’t done yet, and when he’s called on it by the other characters, he just ignores them or waves them off, or flatulates. He flatulates a lot, it seems, mostly to break the tension. My personal favorite portion involves an extended description of the 151-foot tall statue of Nathan Bedford Forest in full Klu Klux Klan regalia, which was presented to the people of New York as a gesture of surrender by the defeated Confederacy in 1866. It stood there until it was rammed in the crotch by a zeppelin - gah! I just broke out laughing! Honestly, I can’t say this without breaking up - it was rammed in the crotch by a zeppelin, which brought the whole thing down. Eventually the Statue of Liberty was built on the now-unused 150-foot-tall stand, and New Yorkers have debated which sculpture was better until this very day.

If he’d managed to keep up that level of lunacy, this would instantly be one of my favorite books of all time, but alas, while it’s pretty engagingly amusing, it’s not exactly a yuck-a-minute. Most of the best gags are utter throwaway descriptions like that, or the “Mince-about-hall” where many of the 19th Century’s greatest entertainers were discovered, or the “Last untamed Indian” that Teddy Roosevelt keeps in a large birdcage in his house. As with most of Get A Life, the story hovers somewhere between absurdism and surrealism, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not for everyone. Several scenes feel like they’re out of a sitcom, though that’s not entirely a bad thing, and I do believe it’s part of the gag. My personal favorite of these: Chris repeatedly informs us that whatever else he may be, he’s first-and-foremost a dancer. At one point towards the end of the story he ends up in a room with another version of himself (Time travel, remember), and the two of him more-or-less unconsciously start tap-dancing in unison, more and more elaborately as the conversation continues, without realizing it. On the other hand, scenes like his audition for a play just don’t really work, and are kinda’ tedious. The plot, when it’s ultimately revealed, is needlessly complex and never entirely makes sense. Again, this is part of the gag. At 368 pages, it feels a bit padded out. It could easily have lost 75 and benefited. Just the same, when the ultimate puppet master behind all the evil goings on is revealed, I laughed uncontrollably for about fifteen minutes or so.

So: not a bad book, but not a classic. It’s got a few belly-laughs, but mostly it’s just modestly amusing. A newish author learning his skills, I guess. It did make me interested enough to read his other books, now that I realize he has other books.


It’s OK.