You can't tell a book by its cover, but author and title can reveal a lot. For example, who thought, when they heard that Eric Bogosian had written a book called "Mall," that it would be a celebration of American happiness, or a gift guide perhaps?
Of course not. Anyone familiar with "Talk Radio," or "Suburbia," or his latest version of "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee" would have expected a rant, and one more temple of mindless consumerism is just the sort of place where Bogosian would shop for literary material.
And that's the problem with "Mall," the first novel by the performer and playwright. You know what he's selling from the first page, and not only is it a tough sell as Bogosianware, it doesn't even stack up all that well to a house brand.
Here is some of what you'll get:
Bogosian's contempt for ordinary people. It's not new, not improved, though he does seem to have refined his scorn for fat people: "Mall" is stuffed with references to the "blubbery."
His observation that Americans share delusions (that we're all above average, and certainly better than that guy over there) and addiction (to alcohol and food, to sex and cigarettes).
Characters who are either too ordinary or too extraordinary. On one end is Mal, the crystal-meth maniac who has as many guns as he has grudges, just one more fed-up nut case from the evening news. (It's a chilling inference - that there have been so many of them they're just another type - but that's not one of Bogosian's implications.)
On the other is Michel, the poor-but-honorable Haitian-immigrant security guard. He's another fatty, and has no discernible training, but he is able to stalk Mal through darkness and uneven terrain. At one point during the chase, Mal stops and Michel "intuits" it, presumably thanks to those heightened senses Michel has developed from long hours on sentry in corridor B.
What's more believable about him is that though he's the only hero of the piece, he ends up uncelebrated, unloved, even unnoticed. It's one of the book's few poignant moments.
Michel's skills strain credulity in particular for how they contrast with those of police officers, who are depicted to be about as bright as they ever were in the "Police Academy" movies. (The portrayal has about that much originality, too: One of the cops' first reactions to Mal's rampage is to get fresh coffee and crullers.) While Michel tiptoes through the darkness, the police stumble blindly into traps we can smell from here. Hours into the siege, they're still unable to establish roadblocks, apparently because Bogosian needs free access for a character in a secondary story line.
It's almost as if Bogosi an hadn't considered roadblocks until some editor noticed, and he decided to paper over the discrep an cy instead of doing yet another rewrite. Perhaps he's a victim of past brilliance, but "Mall" seems to suffer from insufficient effort rather than insufficient talent. The flaws appear mostly in plot and characterization, two knacks Bogosi an has not particularly needed before now.
Indeed, the biting Bogosian of his stage monologues is present throughout "Mall," particularly in the voice of Jeff, a mall- crawling slacker intent on going straight to writing greatness, instead of to college. "Lately he had been perusing Hesse. He wasn't exactly sure who Hesse was, but he liked the picture on the cover of the Penguin Classics edition."
Regrettably, Bogosian seldom employs another signature of his stage work - the urgent, rat-a-tat delivery. The prose of "Mall" is uneven, as when he likens Mal to a "thousand-year-old Galapagos turtle on downs," or when he describes noise from a malfunctioning car radio as "a transmission from station STYX."
Altogether, it's hard to be enthusiastic about "Mall," even for a fan, but Bogosian doesn't deserve all the blame. In his acknowledgments, he first thanks David Rosenthal, vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster, "for saying `Why not?' " Rosenthal, and Bogosian, should have thought twice.