too many words by laura lemay

cross dressing, a book review

A few years back I went through a phase where I read everything that Amazon told me to. Recommendations, “Customers who bought X also bought Y,” I ate it up. The experiment wasn’t a rousing success; although I was never pointed at anything completely inappropriate, I never found any books or music that really truly stuck with me. OK, there’s one exception: Flogging Molly, a Pogues-like celtic punk band, was an Amazon discovery, and I am nuts for them. I can’t remember why it was Amazon told me to buy them, because its not like celtic punk is high on my must-listen list. I only own one Pogues CD and Amazon doesn’t know about it. Kind of suspicious, actually (nervous look).

Anyhow, It was during this recommendations experiment that Amazon told me to read Bill Fitzhugh. At the time there were only two Bill Fitzhugh novels to read, Pest Control and the Organ Grinders, and I read them both. They were a lot of fun, very silly, very sarcastic, light reading, a good way to pass the time on an airplane, say. Pest Control, about an exterminator mistaken for a hit man, is the funnier and faster-paced of the two. The Organ Grinders is much more dark and satiric, involving an evil biotech company that is genetically altering baboons for the lucrative illegal human transplant industry. It was still a fast-paced read, but a very angry book, and kind of preachy in its anger.

I was reminded about Bill Fitzhugh the other week, and snagged his next book at the library: Cross Dressing. This book is another dark satire, this time about religion and poverty and advertising. It concerns two twin brothers: Dan Steele, an evil corrupt advertising executive, and Michael Steele, a catholic priest just returned from Africa and now working at a halfway house. Dan gets himself in deep financial trouble, and then midway through the book Michael dies. Dan is forced to assume his identity, and chaos and hilarity ensues.

There are two big problems I have with this book: A. Its pretty predictable. Evil Dan assumes the identity of his priestly brother. You will be astonished to find out that Dan has a redemption by the end of the book and turns to the side of good. He also saves the halfway house from being repossessed by the bank (even more evil than advertising) and finds romance with a nun. OK she’s not really a nun, but that’s OK because he’s not really a priest.

B. Its a really dark book. I mean really dark. Its supposed to be dark satire, and there are plenty of parts in this book that are deliciously nasty and funny. But there are a lot of other parts that are just dark and sad and not funny. There’s a difficult balance to strike when you’re trying to engage the sympathy of your readers for as difficult a topic as poverty and sickness and death while still trying to be funny, and I’m afraid Fitzhugh doesn’t have that balance here. He’s very good at being angry about his subject, and describing it in a way that is touching and painful — but it doesn’t feel like it belongs in this book. Its a strange mix and it doesn’t quite work.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. I see from Amazon that there are four more Bill Fitzhugh novels I’ve missed, so obviously the guy’s keeping busy. But I’m not sure I need to keep reading; I like my light reading to actually be light.