- William Giraldi
- W.W. Norton and Company
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by C. B. Santore
- August 16, 2011
A jilted bridegroom seeking lessons in love embarks on a riotous trail of mayhem and outlandish creatures.
Reviewed by C. B. Santore
Charles Homar has a problem. His fiancee, Gillian, is more enamored of a giant squid than of him, and just days before their wedding she has jilted him for an expedition to capture the creature from the deep. The loss sets Charlie on a riotous trail of mayhem and monsters, both human and imaginary. Charlie, part Don Quixote, part Jack Kerouac, is without Quixote’s simple sweetness or Kerouac’s edginess. Aided and abetted by his childhood friend Groot, who grew up to become the U.S. Navy’s single deadliest weapon, Charlie will do anything for love.
The reader may feel sympathy for the protagonist of William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters but nonetheless find it hard to like him. Charlie is by his own account a memoirist of only mediocre fame with a weekly column in which he chronicles his madcap road trip, writing about people to whom he has given his word that he would never write about them. With Groot’s advice and a disconcerting blessing from his family priest, Charlie travels to Virginia with a plan to kill Gillian’s ex-lover, a state policeman turned stalker who has been haunting their lives. His next stop is the southern Maine port from which Gillian is set to embark on her quest to capture the giant squid and where his outrageous gun-play lands Charlie a stint in the local jail.
Charlie is not a man who learns his lesson the first, or even the second, time. Once released from jail, he agrees to Groot’s new plan to stoke the fire of his manhood and thus win back Gillian by traveling to the Pacific Northwest on a quest to confront Bigfoot. When his guide Romp, a last-American-man type, disappears in the woods and apparently engages the hirsute monster in battle, Charlie abandons him for dead and seeks comfort from ex-girlfriend Sandy in nearby Seattle. Sandy — now credentialed with a Ph.D. — is involved with a diminutive new love, an alien hunter who has swayed her to his belief that Earth has been visited by space aliens. Charlie instantly dislikes him and takes on the role of a knight-errant, jousting to free Sandy from the manipulative man who has succeeded in undermining her scientific training in favor of his non-scientific theories.
The narrative becomes even more bizarre as Charlie works his way back to his home in Connecticut. On the way, he seeks out a man in a mixed marriage to learn how to love a woman properly. It is sardonically humorous (or perhaps blatantly prejudiced?) that this white man and his black wife have a daughter named Mocha and that he is pulverized by a lesbian pugilist in love with his wife. The final stop of Charlie’s road trip, the most outlandish, is another attempt to learn the logistics of love from an Italian stud and his “goddesses,” but this time Charlie’s better judgment prevails and he takes the high road, opting to pass up the experience.
Lurching from one adventure to another, Charlie exhibits few redeeming qualities. He is loyal to Groot: When Groot asks, Charlie replaces Groot’s name with a fictitious one in his column. He is ever true to Gillian, but he is also easily manipulated, prone to extravagant gestures and dangerous, stupid actions. He is capricious, a potential murderer and can be a coward. It’s not clear if he was motivated more by the desire to save Sandy or vanquish her new lover, more by moral principles or fear of the goddesses.
Busy Monsters is not for those who lack imagination or the ability to suspend disbelief. Whether Charlie is a hero or a victim, deranged or just a little unhinged, is open to interpretation. One may or may not believe in the existence of the squid, Bigfoot or space aliens, but can one believe in Charlie? Can one, given the circumstances, accept his behavior as a love-sick suitor and go along for the ride, or is the trip just too over the top? Does love, or the lack thereof, really do this to a man?
In the end it is unclear if Charlie has learned anything from his travails. It is not what happens to us but how we handle what happens to us that counts. Charlie has survived what has happened to him and what he has caused to happen to him. Through love and loss, hope and despair, he has endured. Maybe that is the best he (or we) can ask for.
C. B. Santore is a freelance writer and editor in Fairfax, Virginia.