Review–Shriver

Chris Belden’s Shriver might be called a book about a novelist who wrote a book called Goat Time which everybody seems to enjoy but nobody seems to have read, at least not entirely, including not the author Shriver himself.

Add to this nonsensical loop a few day’s worth of swarming mosquitoes, a crate or two of whiskey, and a parade of cheerleaders, lurking shadows, and self-centered artists through a mid-western college town and voila: a quick, witty parody of modern-day writerly conferences.

Shriver

Readers of Shriver will encounter a range of characters from aspiring author and overweight corndog consumer Delta Malarkey-Jones to Blotto, the delivery boy and drunken cowboy professor T. Watzczesnam. We get talked down to from on high by arrogant playwright Basil Rather, yet may find some titillation in his well-endowed assistant, Lena Brazir (well endowed above and below the waist). We may learn to appreciate the personal pain of Native American Poetess Gonquin Smithee, even if it means making room for Ms. Labio, her puckered lover.

Fortunately, Belden doesn’t toss us in among this rabble without a right-minded guide or two, from grad student Edsel Nixon to Shriver’s beloved Professor Cleverly. Even Shriver himself is a form of sanity, on those rare occasions he hasn’t lost his marbles or drown himself in whiskey. But who wouldn’t go nuts or seek blind drunkenness in a world that features the Outer East Coast Inner Critics Circle Award, the Church of Pornocology, the Dusty Rose Rodeo Museum, and other points of interest in an unnamed whistle stop college town on the Black River? By the way, Lymphadenopathy seems to be going around, so watch you don’t catch cat scratch fever.

The satire isn’t entirely shallow tomfoolery. Belden may be funny, but he’s also a writer in command. The novel provides literary shelter in such refined imagery as the “Tiny moth of anxiety fluttering inside” Shriver’s chest, which itself grows into a “fruit bat caged inside his ribs, now transformed into a squawking, fluttering crow.” And when the imposter, Shriver, answers the call to forge his alter ego’s name on his masterpiece—Goat Time—Shriver uses “The same signature he penned on his checks to the electric company.”

We find the protagonist staring “At the deep bowl of clear blue sky overhead. Somewhere on the other side were billions of planets spinning in their rutted orbits, impossibly cold and empty, and oblivious to this quaking man on an aluminum ladder. What difference would it make if he plunged to the ground and landed on the blade of the box cutter? By the same token, what did it matter that he was not the real Shriver, but an imposter bumbling through a pointless charade?”

This considerable depth aside, the self-referential Shriver is “Like a cheap Agatha Christie novel,” a murder mystery folded into a love story that gallops on the back of a horse named Walter right up to the very end. It’s a “Ridiculous charade” that asks: “What is it about writers? Why are they so self-absorbed?” and “Must one be an imposter to be a writer?”

And that’s where Chris Belden puts the heart into this joyride through Twaddleville. He examines the nature of what it means to be a writer, and comes up with a few good answers:

It’s like there’s two different people inside you, wrestling. There’s the real you, gentle, sensitive, genuine. Then there’s the liar, the imposter, the villain—the writer.

Shriver, to be reissued later this month by Touchstone Books, manages to be witty without pretense, absurd without hopelessness, a literary romp roiling with characters who are simple yet evolved, endearing and funny. Best of all, they are fun to be around.

If you liked this review and though Shriver a good fit for your reading list, you might also check out Robert Bruce Cormack’s You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make it Scuba Dive).