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Gary Indiana's Latest Novel Is A Drive-By Shot At The Underbelly Of American Culture

By Fred DeLovely

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Resentment: A Comedy, by Gary Indiana (Bantam/Doubleday). Cloth, $22.95.

NEAR THE END of Gary Indiana's Resentment: A Comedy, Seth, a gay, middle-aged, and thoroughly frustrated tabloid journalist assigned to cover the Martinez trial (a thinly veiled analog of the Menendez case), pleads to his friend Jack, "No matter what you do...you wind up guilty of everything."

"Yeah," Jack replies, "No shit." Yet despite this by-now familiar complaint within Indiana's universe--the same bland and self-serving complaint that so many of Indiana's wrong-done character's voice again and again in myriad guises--Seth's plea couldn't be more disingenuous. Sure he's had a couple of bad breaks. He's HIV positive. He's been epically unlucky in love. And to top it off, his looks are rapidly succumbing to a daily regime of alcohol and drugs. But Seth's true crime, the one he dares not voice, is far more sinister: the callously unreported, booze-addled, vehicular manslaughter of an unknown person.

And so it goes in Resentment, an expedition into the unremittingly dark heart the author finds at the core of late 20th-century American culture. His America, populated almost exclusively by misfits and freaks--from the Tourette's afflicted psychiatric expert who continually barks obscenities and fondles herself during testimony at the Martinez trial, to the psychotic judge who lives in constant fear that his other personality, a bizarrely costumed blackmailer and coprophiliac, will burst free. Yet for all the ostentatiously comic and sometimes entertaining freakishness on display, Indiana's larger object, the willful, moralistic self-deception engaged in by the novel's protagonists, remains firmly, if somewhat obscurely, at the fore.

As in the trial itself, which hums incessantly through all the character's lives, truth remains subject to broad, self-interested interpretation, usually succumbing to outright revision. For example, after finally confessing his crime to a longtime friend, Seth manages to convince himself (with the aid of his friend's complicity) that his victim was probably nothing more than a large dog; that believing he'd run down a man in the first place was most likely the result of his having taken some speed laced with PCP.

Compellingly, though perhaps somewhat to the novel's detriment, Indiana seems to suggest that the inability to reason morally is a function of the loss of coherent, meaningful moral narratives. The very structure of the novel, predominated by a near fetishistic preoccupation with the day-to-day minutiae of the Martinez trial, would seem to suggest as much. Characters continually debate the validity of opposing interpretations, staking claims to scenarios that tend mostly to support their subjective, and often bizarre, intuitions regarding the murderous brothers' motivations. Soon, though, even this falls away, as the trial itself becomes increasingly mired in inconsequential name-calling, and the novel's protagonist becomes increasingly disinterested in all but the most superficial aspects of the case--in particular, how the respective attorneys look.

Perhaps the clearest expression of Indiana's position, though, comes near the end of the first part of the novel, as Seth and his friends attend a crucifixion staged by a well-known performance artist. While Indiana's depiction of the ceremony itself is respectfully and even beautifully rendered, it clashes wildly with Seth and his companions' drunken indifference. The effect is made even more potent by the fact that Seth has, just moments before, killed a pedestrian and left the body lying in a ditch.

Despite the cogency and force of Indiana's indictment, or perhaps as an unfortunate consequence of his larger ambition, Resentment: A Comedy founders as a novel. There's some very good writing, particularly the petty, mean-spiritedness of wildly drawn ancillary characters like Bunny Honeypot, an aging drag queen "of the old, Zsa-Zsa Gabor school." Likewise, some of Indiana's descriptions--like that of a computer expert's imagining "his spine crawling free of his exoskeleton into creepy hyperspace," or his image of a woman wearing a mask of facial mud "where her eyebrows extruded like centipedes in aspic"--are both funny and poetically apt. But as the novel wears on, and the events of the Martinez trial become increasingly unadorned by narrative-aside in service to Indiana's sociological objective, the novel itself becomes increasingly fragmented and, by the end, all too prosaic.


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