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A Writer's 'Mysterious Secret': Style Plus Empathy

Book Cover: Mysterious Secret

Remember back in junior high, when someone passed a book under the desk to you with a nudge and a wink suggesting it was hot stuff? In my day, that book tended to be The Godfather, but this is also, more or less, the way I discovered The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure, by Jack Pendarvis. I was on the faculty at Eckerd College's Writers in Paradise workshop, and my colleague, the novelist Tom Franklin, slid this slender paperback across the table to me while we were supposed to be listening to one of the guest lecturers. "Read the first story," he whispered. "It's only three pages."

That story was "Sex Devil," and it was at once the funniest and saddest thing I've ever read. In fact, it's really two stories — an unintentionally comical letter laying out the proposal for a comic called Sex Devil, and the implicit, cringe-inducing plight of the letter writer, a taunted loner who clearly lacks Sex Devil's amazing sexual prowess. (Or even his talent for dancing.)

The subtext of "Sex Devil" is so palpable that it's like reading a story that's been written in invisible ink, watching the letters slowly form over the heat of a light bulb. And that's how almost every Pendarvis story works. You laugh at what's on the page; you're haunted by what's not.

Pendarvis writes about life's losers, but he's never condescending toward them. You can tell he feels a kinship with all of his characters, no matter how stunted or strange. Like Prometheus, he would probably steal fire for his creations, although he might be less stoic — if much funnier — about the daily devouring of his liver.

Better still, Pendarvis' work is truly suspenseful in a way that most fiction isn't anymore. We're all savvy consumers of narrative, and most narrative plays by certain rules; in the final pages, depending on the genre, the hero is almost sure to defuse the bomb — or win the girl, or triumph in the big athletic contest, albeit in a way that guarantees he has learned some important lessons. Even most literary novels function that way.

But in a Pendarvis story, anything can happen. In "The Pipe," one of the longer stories in the collection, a security guard and a paramedic stand vigil by the breathing tube of a disc jockey who has been buried alive to promote his radio station. Early in the story, the paramedic wonders aloud what would happen if he "were to tee-tee" down the hole. The instantly uneasy reader, like the security guard, spends the next 38 pages speculating just exactly what this paramedic might do.

The paramedic, like a lot of Pendarvis' characters, almost seethes with his creative urges. It's a rock opera he's burning to produce, but the desire to write is the most common urge among Pendarvis' characters — including a figure not unlike the author, reporting from his first-ever writers conference. ("'What are your influences?' somebody asked the panel. Everybody said Faulkner.")

In the same story, titled "So This is Writing!", Pendarvis shows his willingness to undercut a tender, beautiful paragraph with a punch line — at his own expense, too. Some earnestly literary writers hold humor at a remove, as if the tiniest whiff of comedy might taint their work, but Pendarvis isn't afraid to let it seep into his stories to mingle with the poignancy and poetry there.

He also isn't afraid to mock would-be literary fiction at its most pretentious and precious. In "Our Spring Catalog," he provides publisher's-catalog copy seemingly written by a drunk and/or frustrated would-be novelist, who clearly finds it increasingly difficult to pretend any enthusiasm for the books she's been hired to extol. Later, Pendarvis has dry, deadpan fun with the imaginary contributors' notes: "Gretchen Tiffler draws on her experience as a Girl Scout leader to write realistic stories of hiking. She is married to Horace Weems, a renowned tuba player." And he imagines this blurb for a fictitious debut novel, So Twines the Grape: "Greeves-Dunn uses the tractor of her talent to plow the fallow Southern fields of genius, uncovering the cracked bones of truth and planting the seeds of a fiery enema for the soul."

Even as I cite these lines, I'm not sure they work as well out of context. Pendarvis isn't a gag writer, stringing together one-liners. He's a serious writer who doesn't take himself too seriously.

In the end, though, all these stories are unfailingly kind to their characters and respectful of their cracked dreams. Pendarvis' people want to be noticed, they want to be heard, they want to be recognized as special. In other words, they're human. Only funnier.

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Laura Lippman