Masters' thesis: All of America is ignorant excess, deserving of ridicule

Book review: 'Post: A Fable,' by Hilary Masters. BkMkPress, $16.95.

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The Nov. 28, 1977, issue of Sports Illustrated featured a cover photo of a long-haired Larry Bird, Indiana State University's "secret weapon" on the basketball court.

Accompanying the sports articles was an excerpt from "Post," a novel "in progress," by Hilary Masters. This piece was also about a bird, not the basketball player but the passenger pigeon, and the not-so-secret weapons that killed millions in a single hunt in Wisconsin in 1881.

Mr. Masters has now published the complete novel, a hilarious, no-holds-barred satire of an eventual America where hallowed monuments are cheapened with corporate logos and insane politicians win as long as they promise not to raise taxes. All is selfishness and excess.

The extinction of the passenger pigeon may not be funny, but the shenanigans of the novel's characters are. This fable, as Mr. Masters calls it, is told by a pompous investigator, B. Smith, who reminds us every few pages of his dogged pursuit of the facts. Smith has been sent to find Leo Post, son-in-law of the late New York Gov. Kimball Lyon. Why has Post, a former supporter of Lyon's Perpetual Parking Plaza and Expressway, changed his political viewpoint and disappeared?

Once Smith tracks Post to an island in the Hudson River north of Manhattan, the novel takes off. Mr. Masters can't resist lampooning a real Hudson River attraction, the Bannerman Castle on Pollepel Island, a building so dangerous that visitors are threatened by falling debris. Post's family residence, the Leek Castle, not much safer than Bannerman's, houses Leo, an author who writes pornography under the name Banal; Taylor, an ex-rodeo star who loses his horse and now drives an amphibious taxi; Pickett Sneat, a paraplegic book reviewer who rattles around the castle in a metal harness; and Lucy, an African-American cook who drops pots and pans and curses as she is "preparing some delicacy."

Nothing, of course, is as it seems to be, and questions multiply: Was Leo's gorgeous wife, Molly Lyon Post, really killed when her Moroni Special race car crashed on the last leg of the Mark Twain 500? Is the voluptuous Lucy, who wears a cartridge belt, more than a cook? Will turning New York into a parking lot eliminate terrorism? Is the passenger pigeon really extinct? The answers are as delightfully absurd as the questions themselves.

An additional pleasure for readers of Mr. Masters' 10th novel comes from watching the author and Carnegie Mellon University professor play his literary pranks. He uses his considerable experience as -- at one time or other -- press agent, journalist, political candidate, photographer, author, creative writing teacher and award recipient to ridicule all of these. Here is Pickett Sneat on creative writing teachers and their students:

"Oh, yes, all those in these so-called writing programs who guide the illiterate into deeper incoherence -- one must be generous to them."

Leo Post, who marks his salacious passages to save his readers time, speaks frequently in purple prose: "It was autumn. Leaves played mellow villanelles of light upon the lapstraked walls of village cottages. Streams were low and blazed with mica and quartz, the rubble of an old empire. Cows strung homeward in the late hour, returning to their barns full of grace and milk."

As the names of the characters suggest -- Pickett (pick at) and B. Smith (B.S.) are obvious ones -- puns abound, and so many literary genres get parodied that it is difficult to keep count. The novel has its satiric roots in ancient Rome, but "Post" also has echoes of the fiction of Jonathan Swift (Gov. Lyon is Lilliputian-size), Edgar Allan Poe, and the early Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh. There is even a nod to Twain's Huck Finn at the end.

While "Post" might be difficult to label and impossible to describe adequately in a brief review, Mr. Masters' mulligan stew of a novel is a recipe for success, and 34 years after that Sports Illustrated excerpt, readers can finally savor the finished product.

Kirk Weixel is professor of English at Saint Francis University, where he teaches literature and writing.


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