Given the infinite fro-yo depots and precipitously rising rents below 14th Street these days, it’s small wonder that East Village auteur Arthur Nersesian elects for escapism with his ninth novel. He embraces it on every front: hurtling his protagonist beyond the five boroughs for the first time, invoking the kind of far-fetched conspiracy theories that make Batboy seem plausible, even softening his natural bohemian snap into a numb, down-home drawl.
Mesopotamia follows Sandy Bloomgarten, a sullen and wayward tabloid reporter who considers herself “fired from my marriage and divorced from my job.” After months of hiding behind the bottle in a squalid Hell’s Kitchen studio, estranged from her cheating husband, she returns to the rural Tennessee of her childhood on a lurid missing-blonde assignment. Her (frequently drunken) interviews unveil a larger scandal involving the seedy Elvis Presley–obsessed locals, a perilous stake-out in Mexico, a senselessly murdered best friend, and a deformed, secretive lover who may or may not be the King himself.
Nersesian easily captures the quirks of Tennessee, from sweet mom-and-pop storefronts to dingy, cluttered trailer parks; he sounds eager to stretch those regional muscles, after eight novels set in caustic New York. The lengthy, expository dialogues are a bit tin-eared for the South—he’s determined to pound every plot twist home, much like the gossip rags of his protagonist—and less effective than those in his 1997 debut The Fuck-Up, a jagged cult classic of artistic frustration in the East Village. Still, he clearly delights in depicting rabid Elvis fans swarming the bucolic hills. Of a Presley impersonation contest, he writes: “Elvises sat in both directions as if it were the galley of a Las Vegas slave ship.”
Mesopotamia is a solid, absurdist mystery. It’s a vacation from the cosmopolitan, for both its heroine and its author—and, just like the tabloids it skewers, a sensationalist retreat for the reader.