In Motorman, David Ohle’s dizzying 1972 debut, we first meet Moldenke, the author’s hapless, indelible alter ego. Moldenke is as unfortunate as his name might suggest: passive, inert, afflicted. In one Motorman scene, he has four sheep hearts installed in his chest at the casual recommendation of his physician, whose prescription for post-op convalescence is: “Imagine yourself in a mock meadow, grazing.”
Though Moldenke has now played the ostensible protagonist in two of the three novels Ohle has published, it’s the world he endures that is Ohle’s true subject—whether Motorman‘s Texaco City, with its multiple suns and “government moons,” The Age of Sinatra‘s Titanic cruise (on which Moldenke is arrested and sent to a prison known only as the “French Sewer”), or Pisstown, the plagued, vivid setting of Ohle’s latest, The Pisstown Chaos.
In Pisstown‘s ailing landscape, a parasite is turning citizens into decaying “stinkers”—”dead, but not enough to bury.” Moldenke is infected, a “death traveler” glimpsed passing through Pisstown’s Bum Bay. But it’s the Balls family—Grandpa Jacob, Grandma Mildred, and their grandchildren, Ophelia and Roe—that the novel most closely chronicles. Forced apart by arbitrary “shifting orders,” which come down from the Reverend Herman Hooker (a mad-despot heir to Motorman’s Bunce and Sinatra‘s President Ratt), the family must wander, weathering episodic periods of chaos. Mildred falls prey to parasites and ends up in isolation in a prison colony, where she’s cured by the bite of a fiddleback spider; Ophelia becomes first the consort to the Abbot of Bum Bay, a carnival giant formerly known as Dimitri Machnov, then an investigator of unsolved crimes; Roe ends up working as a special assistant to Hooker himself, where his duties include masturbating the great man over a sink.
Part epistolary satire, part Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines (the narrative, such as it is, alternates with cryptic and alarming Pisstown news bulletins), Ohle’s book pulses with the cool logic of the insane—the kind of deadpan surrealism that Ben Marcus once memorably pegged as “apathy noir.” The familiar battles the strange, and the duel ends in a delirious tie.