Apocalypse Sometime: Ron Currie Jr.'s Everything Matters!

A decorated young writer pitches a screwball of a second novel

In Ron Currie Jr.'s 2007 debut novel God Is Dead, the author imagined a world in which God, stymied by an implacable "polytheistic bureaucracy," came to Africa in the human form of a Dinka woman, only to be bombed, starved, and eaten by dogs. In Everything Matters!, Currie's follow-up, his protagonist is mysteriously informed while still in the womb that in exactly "thirty-six years, one hundred sixty-eight days, fourteen hours, and twenty-three seconds," a rogue comet is set to plow into Earth with the explosive energy of a few hundred thousand Hiroshima bombs. The through line is right there in the Brothers Karamazov homage that makes up the two books' titles: If God is dead, suggests Currie—updating Dostoyevsky by way of Derrida and David Foster Wallace—then everything is not just permissible but, more important, possible.

Apocalypse is a funny, freeing trope. God Is Dead featured a bloody war between a predatory army of evolutionary psychologists and a scrappy, doomed postmodern anthropologist resistance; churches where the hymnals consisted entirely "of barks and whines transcribed phonetically onto the page"; and a frathouse suicide cult. Everything Matters!—whose hero, Junior, is born "suffering from the soul-dread caused by knowledge of the impending end of all existence"—is restrained in comparison, merely encompassing professional baseball, Vietnam, the Challenger disaster, a domestic terrorist plot, CIA black sites, a vicious strain of flesh-eating bacteria, and a far-off planet known as Gliese 689 d.

Mostly, it's a family saga. Junior's mother, Debbie, is an alcoholic whose 64-ounce Turbo Chug! mug is an increasingly poor cover for her vodka habit. His father, John, a war vet whose right pinkie and ring fingers were sliced off by an enraged Vietnamese prostitute—thus ending a promising career with the Astros—pulls day shifts in a factory and works nights in a bakery. Junior is a precocious child—"the fourth-smartest person in the history of the world," according to the voice he hears in his head. "Whenever it tells me about the future," Junior says of the voice, demonstrating how he knows at age 7 that his older brother Rodney is addicted to cocaine, "things always happen exactly the way they're described." This gift turns out to have little preventative value—Rodney suffers an overdose, which leaves him both mildly retarded and with the ability to hit "97-mph fastballs to all fields effortlessly," while Junior's high school sweetheart, Amy, leaves him after he tells her that the end of the world is imminent.

Ian Fleming would approve of the sex scene: Currie Jr.
Sarah Woehler Michaud
Ian Fleming would approve of the sex scene: Currie Jr.

Junior's ensuing spiral of depression and regret includes a stint in his brother's Chicago mansion—Rodney is eventually recruited as starting shortstop for the Cubs—where he drinks himself into oblivion. Reggie Fox, a triple-amputee living in Washington Park, pulls Junior into a suicide plot involving a wheelchair made almost entirely of C4. At the decisive moment, Junior extricates himself and proceeds to spend the next few years speaking loudly and publicly about the impending end of the world, until he's kidnapped by government agents. In a secret prison somewhere in the former Eastern Bloc, he's recruited into an effort to get a jump on "extraterrestrial emigration technologies" and an edge on the world's rogue states. "Want a seat on the bus, Pakistan?" one agent asks Junior, rhetorically. "Cease and desist with the nuclear testing."

Colin Powell had a memorable set piece in God Is Dead, and in Everything Matters!, Olympia Snowe randomly shows up to save Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Earlier in the novel, Junior's old girlfriend, Amy, is captured by a rogue spy who thinks she's a Hezbollah-affiliated terrorist; her rescue by Junior sparks a reunion sex scene straight out of Ian Fleming. Oh, and somewhere along the way, Junior discovers a cure for cancer. Currie's novel is wildly implausible throughout: sometimes enjoyably so, and sometimes not, as when—over and over again—the plot crumples in service of his next riff. It's a recognizably postmodernist strategy brought to bear on a quintessentially modern question: How do you live when you know it's all about to end in a huge explosion?

"Oblivion was always just around the corner, so what was the use of, say, trying to make the varsity basketball team, or starting a retirement fund, or having kids, or any of the other things that normal people do?" Junior asks his government handler, at a particularly nihilistic moment. But Currie is ultimately an optimist—this is a book, after all, called Everything Matters!—and his sprawling novel has a very different, vastly more sentimental answer to the above question than Junior does. Everything Matters! contains both a declaration of the possibilities of narrative fiction and, above all, a defense of good old-fashioned human resilience in the face of petty distraction and profound horror—the kind of struggle David Foster Wallace spent the last, traumatic years of his writing life grappling with. I imagine he would've liked this book.

zbaron@villagevoice.com

 
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