When Ian McEwan was quoted in a recent profile as saying that “most novels are boring,” he was responding to those who had pigeonholed his books as merely highbrow thrillers, and asserting the fundamental aspiration of all good books, literary or not: that they be interesting. As regards novels, McEwan’s judgment was spot-on. Most of them today are boring. They’re trite, overwritten, riskless, underfunded by imagination and, essentially speaking, tired. Memoirs, too. It’s as if the entire genre of long-form narrative has grown weary of having to defend itself against electronic media and, like the polar ice caps, simply begun to dwindle and age out.
What to do? Daniel Asa Rose — a former arts and culture editor of the Forward — has one option: Keep the reader laughing too hard to notice. When the reader isn’t busy laughing, send him or her to the well for some good old-fashioned family feeling. Have that family feeling brokered through memories of childhood. Throw in a kind of black sheep doppelganger of the narrator, add some medical drama, a jigger of cross-cultural comedy, some hilarious sexual tension, a suspenseful plot and voilà: an alternative to watching movies on your iPhone is born at last.
The book “Larry’s Kidney” describes the misadventures of Rose as he accompanies his second cousin, the eponymous Larry, to China in search of medical salvation — specifically, a new kidney. Diabetes has already destroyed both of Larry’s working kidneys, and because, in Larry’s words, “the family hates my guts,” no one with the right genetic make-up is willing to offer one of his or her own. The result is that limbo experienced by thousands of Americans in renal failure: a waiting list of about seven years for a donor kidney, and during all that time, the death-by-inches of dialysis.
“Larry’s Kidney” is told in the first person present tense, which, though it can be a bit wearying as a narrative strategy, is redeemed in this case by the fact that Rose has a fine ear for the cadences of speech and, since he casts much of the book in the form of dialogue, gives that ear free rein. Much of the dialogue takes place in the comical interzone where Chinese collides into English and thereby produces continually fresh misprisions, such as “f—k market” for folk market, or “fairy rice” for fried rice, along with intentionally clunky American transliterations of spoken Chinese, as in “Boozy Boozy Negev Desert!” All this is enfolded in Rose’s authorial voice, which — as he and his cousin lope through hotels, clinics and a shifting cast of well-meaning but somewhat inscrutable female helpers who may be either gold diggers or spies, or both — remains tender, ruminative and identifiably Jewish in its self-deprecating comedy.
Most important of all to the book’s success is Cousin Larry himself, whose force of personality exerts the gravitational pull of a large planet and successfully counterpoints any risks run by the narrator’s digressions. He does this because Rose paints him with great naturalistic brio and because Larry himself is, in his creepy way, irresistible. Sullen, self-absorbed and given to vaguely mobbed-up utterances about life, women and money expressed in the often fussy style of the self-educated, he’s the perfect foil to Rose’s nudnik high-mindedness. In that, he seems drawn from the same gene pool as the “reality instructors” of Saul Bellow’s novels — hoods, cardsharps, grifters and betraying friends — who offset the terminal self-absorption of the Bellow professor-proxies.
As Rose nurses the mostly bedridden Larry through the weeks of waiting for a Chinese kidney donor (who most likely will be a freshly executed criminal, and as such a tabula rasa for the author’s liberal guilt), he gives us a detailed portrait of China today. The country comes across as loud, frantic, acquisitive and ravening — a latter-day version of yahoo America, softened by immemorial traditions and a far more intact cultural center. Here is Rose on Beijing: “Once a low-lying labyrinth of grainy neighborhoods, it now reminds me of Kryptonopolis in the early Superman comics, a futuristic metropolis with soaring trains and heatstroke-inducing architecture.” The women, since his previous visit to China 25 years earlier, have undergone a sea change, as well: “Once they were tight lipped and severe, hiding their little hair buns in gray Mao caps. By contrast, the luxurious Yuh-vonne from Happy-Go-Luck Travel bounces flirtatiously, with nuclear-pink highlights in her pageboy that’s like the mane of a punk thoroughbred.”
Rose works diligently, but perhaps a little too hard, to keep the narrative going, not only through the traditional plot devices, but through a panoply of cutely unnecessary metafictional moves, as well. He breaks the text into a variety of different fonts. He interjects winsome little lists that comment on the action. In truth, he needn’t have been so anxious. The book stands on its own as a particular kind of late-in-the-game Yidishe picaresque, and a classic contribution to the annals of cross-cultural comedy. Elegantly written and deeply moving in places, it passes the laugh-out-loud test with flying colors. “Larry’s Kidney,” pace Ian McEwan, is not only not boring. It’s funny as hell.
Eli Gottlieb’s latest novel, “Now You See Him” (William Morrow, 2008), is currently available in paperback.