Sloth by Mark Goldblatt (Greenpoint Press, 2010)
reviewed by Duff Brenna
Air the color of khaki, soot on windows prismed with sunlight, neon-skewed dust, the smell of engine fluid and pralines, steam rising from the hood of a truck, a cluster of taxis. Throw into this assortment of images an unnamed narrator trying to prove he isn’t crazy: “Despite appearances, sir, I am not out of my mind. Quite the reverse, it is sanity itself which moves me to this exercise. Sanity itself which moves me to accost you … “
Dostoevsky permeates Goldblatt’s Sloth, especially Notes from Underground with its duality and layers of unreliable realities. Add a large lump of adoration for a TV aerobics instructor named Holly Servant worshipped and wooed from afar by the love-struck diarist of this story and you have what amounts to a word-rich ride, rollickingly inventive.
Will Holly ever respond to the letters of the man who gives himself the pseudonym Mark Goldblatt, whose Medieval beliefs rely, in part, on the notion that beauty of flesh testifies to higher virtues of the soul, the inside reflecting the outside? Truth is beauty, beauty is truth, that’s all ye know on earth and all ye need to know. The nameless narrator a.k.a. Mark Goldblatt builds his dizzying “metronomic dance” around Keats’ famous insight into what makes males tick, especially horny young males transfixed by “areolae shining like tulips through her leotard … pixied blond hair clinging to her moist back and shoulders.” Goldblatt, the real one, the author self-reflexively observing the fictional one, could easily (if he wanted to) write literary pornography that would rival (possibly surpass) anything Robert Cleland wrote when he was obsessed with Fanny’s fanny. But though Sloth doesn’t shy away from things sexual, titillating sex is not its primary purpose, which is rather a somewhat philosophical search for identity.
Who is a.k.a. Goldblatt? And who is Zezel (also known as Mark Goldblatt) who dips in and out of the narrative, playing the role of “best friend” and perhaps in the past a.k.a.’s lover, a great perhaps that a.k.a. denies. No: “He is my dearest friend, yes, but an odd case.”
Who is Mrs. Zezel? Mrs. Zezel is “a Vassar girl … summa cum sassy.
She is, in sum, the very locus of reason, a geometric proof of the soul …” And also trickster devil-may-care “cross between Lauren Bacall and Leo Gorcey.” Mrs. Zezel gets a.k.a. a date with Allison Molho, but he stands her up, an insult for which Mrs. Zezel will never forgive him, even after she finds out her husband Zezel has taken a.k.a.’s place and is in full-blown adultery mode. Mrs. Zezel’s revenge falls on a.k.a. This comes later in the book and is aided by a kitchen counter. Let your imagination loose, Goldblatt certainly does.
Into the author’s cheerful tongue-in-cheek muddle concerning the vicissitudes of love comes a.k.a.’s desperate need to make enough money to buy a VCR, so that he can rent Holly Servant’s Sunrise cassettes and watch her aerobic gyrations, until he is sweat-soaked and satisfied—at least for a few moments.
His main source of income comes from being a waiter. Not a waiter who waits on tables, but a waiter who waits in line, standing in for those who don’t want to show up too early and wait for doors to open for shows and/or events to begin. But the meager income a.k.a. earns from waiting is not enough to afford the coveted VCR. He reads an advertisement asking for volunteers for a scientific experiment. He signs up and is given some green pills, which might or might not contain a new psychotropic drug. His instructions are to take the pills and record his moods or behavior and return to the office every two weeks to have his finger pricked. Each time he is pricked he also receives one hundred dollars. What a deal! He’ll have that VCR in no time and will be able to spend his days and nights wallowing in Holly’s mesmerizing pulchritude.
The plot thickens when a young gay man is murdered and a.k.a. becomes a person of interest. At this point Zezel has already fallen for Allison Molho. The woman who pricks a.k.a.’s finger has also fallen for Allison Molho. Then Mrs. Zezel has that encounter with a.k.a. on the kitchen counter. But even before such a frightening event, Holly starts answering a.k.a.’s letters at last. Their correspondence moves them ever so slowly closer. Maybe he’s her soul-mate. He tells her he is a writer and sends her some of his stories. Problem is: Zezel wrote the stories. Zezel wrote them under the pseudonym Mark Goldblatt. So right away a.k.a. is misrepresenting himself. He’s already lying to the woman he loves more than anyone else in the world.
And then they talk about meeting.
And the detectives keep questioning him.
And a menacing-looking man is spying on a.k.a.
When Zezel breaks into the apartment and reads a.k.a.’s journal, what he finds there makes him want revenge for the kitchen counter incident with Mrs. Zezel.
Will he do something desperate? Will he hurt a.k.a.? Will the spy kidnap him? Will Holly really show up for the rendezvous? Will the detectives try to pin the murder of the gay man on a.k.a.?
Well, it just gets curiouser and curiouser.
Sloth is a work full of artistic flavor and Rabelaisian slumming. It is funny, serious, insightful and as unique in style and substance as any seriocomic novel I’ve read since Steven Gillis penned The Consequence of Skating or Junot Diaz wrote The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Some novels leave you with a smile. Some leave you thoroughly satisfied. Sloth does both.
DUFF BRENNA is the author of six novels. He is the recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year, a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Honorable Mention. His work has been translated into six languages.