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Humor of bleak life

FIRST published in 2005, "Doghead" was an immediate sensation in Morten Ramsland's native Denmark. It scooped a number of awards and went on to become a best-seller across Continental Europe.

"Doghead" tells the story of three generations of the Eriksson family, who might politely be described as dysfunctional, though Ramsland himself would doubtless use a saltier term. In Norway after World War II, the grandfather, Askild, was hailed as a hero, glorified as "the Carpenter" for striking a German soldier over the head with a stick.

When it emerges that he was in fact a shady war profiteer who stole timber from the Nazis to sell it back at a profit, and that he subsequently betrayed a friend to survive concentration camp, the revelation loosens a pile of skeletons to clatter in rapid succession from the Erikssons' overstuffed closet.

The result is less a traditional novel than it is a series of brightly colored vignettes. Ramsland himself describes the style of his tragicomic family saga as "grotesque realism," while critics in Europe have compared it to that of T.C. Boyle and John Irving.

Certainly Ramsland shares Irving's frank disregard for taboos and his fondness for extravagantly improbable situations. Yet "Doghead" is a very different book from "The World According to Garp," say, or "A Prayer for Owen Meany." For all their eccentric habits and physical peculiarities, Irving's characters are essentially realistic, capable of making a profound emotional connection with the reader.

Ramsland's are larger-than-life creations who go by a roll call of nicknames, among them Jug Ears and the Bath Plug. In the world of the Erikssons, life is shocking. No one is to be trusted, family least of all. Rambunctious, often imaginative, invariably cruel, the stories rattle through a catalog of adultery, duplicity and casual violence. Despite its earthy comedy, "Doghead" is ultimately a bleak book with the thread that binds the stories a belief in endurance, no matter the horrors and cruelties of life.


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