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A Life That's Nasty, Brutish and ... Funny
Phil Camp, the central character of Bill Scheft's third novel, Everything Hurts, published by Simon & Schuster, is grappling with a number of significant dilemmas as the narrative opens. For one thing, everything does really hurt; his body is a hotbed of pain. It's localized in his leg -- he has a pronounced limp at those times he can pull himself up and walk -- but it gets so bad that he can't function except by lying on a wrestling mat -- what he refers to as "The Pad" -- laid out on the floor of his New York apartment.
He's a writer, you see. And that's the source of another problem. He put together what he thought of as a send-up of the whole self-help genre of books; he even used a made-up name, Marty Fleck, when he published it. He wanted it to be a success, of course, so he could pay off his divorce settlement once and for all.
And it did become a best-seller, but for all the wrong reasons. People took Where Can I Stow My Baggage? seriously. And so Camp found that he had to continue to be Fleck, and dispense advice in a column called "Baggage Handling" that soon began running in newspapers throughout the country.
Because of the pain, though, he can't write without lying flat on his back on that mat, while using a special pen -- one of those astronaut pens. Remember that "Seinfeld" episode? Camp's chiropractor did and ordered dozens of them for his patients. Phil can't live -- or work -- without them.
But, you see, this was a fellow who used to run up Park Avenue to the reservoir, take "a lap-plus around the cinder track," and then head back down Park -- 51/2 miles in 41 minutes. But a year before the novel opens, his left foot started going numb some 35 minutes into the workout.
"Dental work numb," he recalls. "He could still run, and the numbness would vanish 30 seconds after he finished running, but what was that? Shoes too tight? Too loose? A subtle reminder from the good folks at Nielson that he was no longer in the coveted 18 to 34 male demographic, and hadn't been since half-past Poppy Bush?"
The pain worsened till, when the book begins, Camp's on the verge of having back surgery. But the evening before the procedure, he bails out. The reason is, he's read a book by a real advice guru -- Dr. Samuel Abrun -- called The Power of "Ow!", in which the author argues that pain is psychosomatic. The experience changes Camp's life, and he decides to become one of Abrun's patients.
Then, at one of Dr. Sam's public sessions, he meets the man's daughter, Janet, herself a physician with her own ideas about the sources of pain, and that, of course, complicates matters. Add into the mix that Camp's in therapy with a man he calls the Irish Shrink, and while in analysis, he relives lots of his dysfunctional past. There's also the fact that he has a half-brother, Jim McManus, who's in the media business, a conservative blowhard featured on talk-radio who hates Marty Fleck (he doesn't know the man's real identity) and everything he stands for.
This is Camp's life as Everything Hurts takes off, and so the potential for comedy seems unlimited. The fact that Scheft is a 15-time Emmy-nominated writer for comedian David Letterman may give readers some sense of what to expect.
There's a lot of funny stuff here, especially in the memories stirred up by Phil's shrink sessions. The author clearly knows that dysfunctional Jewish families have been done to death, but he somehow makes it sound fresh. Most of it has to do with his comic attack. Surprise is the modus operandi, and it works more times than it doesn't.
Everything Hurts has one major defect -- it doesn't really hold together as a novel. One of the problems is that this is an obvious first-person narrative told in the third person, which sometimes undermines the tone. Plus, the various strands that make up Camp's life tend to remain separate. So we move from one to the other as the writer sees fit, rather than getting the necessary feeling that the material is an organic whole, one thing leading seamlessly into another.
And the book's conclusion is a little squishy -- Jim McManus would definitely find a way to skewer it on his radio show. We're told all the things that the books has shown us -- that part of the trick of living is accepting aging and growing old gracefully, and that pain can sometimes be experience's greatest teacher. There's little need so late in the tale to state things so bluntly.
But you learn to forgive a lot when some of the jokes are this good. If you're looking for something truly comic that obviously has emanated from a source of deep pain, Scheft's newest should fit the bill perfectly