A Review of “In the Matter of J. Van Pelt”


Think about Roy Blount Jr. channeling Socrates. Think about a Robert Benchley sendup of Erskine Caldwell. Think about Jack Davis, 1950s Mad Magazine cartoonist, with his antic detail, sinuous distortions, and absurdity. Think about finding truth. Now, you’re ready to read “In the Matter of J. Van Pelt,” by Dave Shiflett, folk singer, political analyst, ghostwriter, and novelist.

Truth can’t be gotten head on. It doesn’t come in a tweet. It forms in the spaces between the things we know for certain. It emerges between the things we knew then, and the things we know now. When we’re sure we’ve got it, it flies into the jet stream, burrows into the earth, and warbles from the song of a cardinal.

Mr. Shiflett gives us the journal of the novel’s namesake, J. Van Pelt, who takes a long journey in his mind, and is taken for a short ride, by the outside world, in the way Jimmy Hoffa was taken for a short ride. Like the now unrepeatable vaudeville act of Stuttering Sam, he earnestly starts one way, falters, and pivots to the opposite with equal certitude.

Van Pelt is a middle-aged, over-weight, marginally successful toady in a Washington law firm, who senses his life is a drifting oblivion. He starts his journal to speak truths too dangerous to speak aloud. His liberation is its secrecy. He reckons toward absolute veracity, without fear of censorship or condemnation. Mostly. But his truth keeps shifting. The elements of his life are bizarre. He plunges in, and day-by-day, certitude shifts like the wind, spiraling toward something, or flying off toward nullity.

There is a counterintuitive theory of comedy and tragedy which holds that comedy is the pessimistic art form, and tragedy the optimistic. Tragedy rests on the assumption that life has meaning, otherwise why care if bad things happen? Comedy assumes life is meaningless, or we couldn’t laugh at it. This book is funny. Seriously funny. The humor squirts out like milk from startled nostrils. It flies up like a rake handle between the eyes. It weaves on many levels in every line, threading its crazy-quilt narrative. But the humor does not describe a random universe of no consequence. It drapes from humanity’s essential structures, love, character, spirituality, memory and eternal longing, like the marble drapes of Callimachus, their wind-swept edges caught in mid flutter.

It’s all here. The enigma of conscious life, the tension between ancient and modern, the timeless longing of humanity, the nasty details of human interaction viewed up close, the impossibility of knowing the truth, and, yet, the possibility of catching a glimpse of eternal beauty wandering on her way. If all you get from the book is a good laugh, you’re ahead of the game. You’ll probably get something more optimistic.

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