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August 29, 2010

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'Meeks' is woolly, original Jim Krusoe

PITY the poor bachelor who can't find a decent suit to wear courting before autumn comes, because if he doesn't find a wife by then he'll be forced to work at the candy mint factory, or worse.

Pity everyone else, too - the garbage-pickers, the soldiers, even the police - living in this world where doubt must be avoided and individuality is stamped flatter than a snake at a square dance.

"Meeks" is a wild, woolly, sly, gentle and wry first novel by Julia Holmes, as well as the name of one of the book's two main characters, a park bum with delusions of grandeur. The novel's other hero is Ben, a sensitive bachelor, the person struggling to find a suit to woo in. It's a lot harder than you'd think.

Hovering around the edges of their world are the Brothers of Mercy, a sinister/ helpful order whose main job seems to be to drag people where they don't want to go, and the Enemy, never seen but always feared.

The only bright spots for bachelors tend to be their memories of unfailingly kind mothers and the contemplation of fruit, which like bachelors, will rot if not soon snapped up.

"Meeks" isn't long, but it contains worlds. One of the many pleasures of reading it is trying to pin down just what its progenitors are.

My own attempts left me with: the novels of Robert Walser, "1984," "The Red Badge of Courage," "A Confederacy of Dunces" (or at least the title), Kafka's "Amerika," and "Crime and Punishment," along with a sprinkling of Donald Barthelme. Yet more than any literary world, the book reminded me of those painted landscapes by the weird Henry Darger, populated with androgynous girls.

Unlike Darger's scenes, though, sweet to the point of sickness, this cyclorama has been painted by a writer who, fruit notwithstanding, has her brush dipped deeply in black and umber.

Because of all of this (or despite it), "Meeks" had the effect of making me very happy.

Behold, Holmes proclaims, a new world, and though it may be as miserable as our present one, or worse, at least this version's different (and also kind of the same), with different rules and disappointments than those we are used to. The result is a giddy kind of freedom.

"Meeks" isn't one of those books a reader snuggles next to for a pleasant trip to the mostly familiar. It's more like having a dream where everything starts off well enough, and then, without quite knowing why, you're being chased.

It's a book whose singular vision keeps returning to me at odd moments, one of the most original and readable novels that's come my way in a long time.


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