Zanesville: A Novel
by Kris Saknussemm
Published by Villard
485 pages, 2005
Who is Elijah Clearfather? Futuristic bioweapon or good old-fashioned messiah? Reincarnated ex-porn star or mutant information-age revolutionary? The man who awakens in New York City's Central Park with no memory of his identity and the enigmatic message FATHER FORGIVE THEM F carved into the flesh of his back may be all of these things and more.
Taken in (and then expelled) by a group of freedom fighters battling the soul-deadening Vitessa Cultporation, Clearfather is a stranger in an even stranger land. Following tantalizing clues that point to the gnomic Stinky Wiggler, and pursued by murderous Vitessa agents, Clearfather embarks on a surreal odyssey of self-discovery across an America that resembles a vast amusement park designed by some unholy trinity of Walt Disney, Hunter S. Thompson, and Hieronymus Bosch. Accompanying Clearfather is an unforgettable cast of characters -- including Aretha Nightingale, an ex-football-playing drag queen; Dooley Duck and Ubba Dubba, hologram cartoon characters sprung outrageously to life; and the ethereally beautiful Kokomo, whose past is as much a mystery as Clearfather's own.
By turn hilarious and deeply moving, a savage, fiercely intelligent satire that is also a page-turning adventure and a transcendent love story, Zanesville marks the arrival of a brilliant new voice in fiction.
He crashed back into himself and felt the Easter evening damp. Dolls and chains hung in ritual fashion from the branches surrounding him, and through the knife-hacked oak trees he could make out great luminous spires and domes, and older, grim, but luxuriant blocks of apartments sealed with steel-plate louvers as if against attack. Beside these rose skeletal scaffoldings on which, judging from the hives of lights, whole families perched on open-air platforms while resourceful or desperate individuals dangled in slings and sacks suspended from guy wires.
Across the sky, as though projected from behind the sulfur-tinged clouds, flashed pictograms and iridescent banks of hypertext. The word vitessa was repeated often ... and slogans like efram-zev ... the right mood at the right time. He felt hypnotized by the messages, information raining down like some new kind of radiation. Then there were streams of news images and giant flickering headlines ... al-waqi'a still a threat ... voyancy links now halfprice ...
He'd been standing there for a long time, he thought, having woken suddenly by the fountain, amazed to find that his hair was long and so blond it almost seemed to glow in the dark. It reminded him of a childhood story but he couldn't pin it down. Then he realized that of much greater concern was that he couldn't remember where he was. It was a park of some kind, a vast shadowy garden in some siren-filled city. But which one?
He heard a voice ... garbled and yet unnaturally clear, seeming to come from inside his head. I'll take Manhattan. It was a man's voice, both far away and far too close.
What did that mean ... to take Manhattan? He tried to shake himself out of his haze. Something terrible had happened. Drugs, head injury. "I don't remember my name!" he said aloud, and felt his heart pound at the implication. Even his clothes seemed strange ... navy cotton drawstring pants, Guatemalan slip-ons, a T-shirt that said I've been to wall drug, and a cream-colored windbreaker with a logo on the chest that showed a wheelbarrow with flames rising out of it. Judging from the grime and odor he might have been sleeping in the bushes for several nights. But Manhattan meant New York, that much he did think was right. Was that where he was? All he could bring to mind was waking with a start with some intuition of danger. Then he heard what he couldn't decide was the same voice or another and glanced around frantically. It said, For I came down from heaven, not to do mine will, but the will of him who sent me.
Shit, he thought. I'm hallucinating. Then a sudden deep sense of alarm brought his whole being alive. There was another sound in the outer darkness. Someone or something was approaching. Seeking him out. Clip clop came the echoes that his hyperanxious ears filtered out ... from the tunnel. He hid behind the bushes behind the fountain. His vision seemed to blur and his head filled with static. He waited, muscles cramping.
Out of the black maw they emerged at last, one on a large chestnut horse, the other on a bay. The horses were shielded with synthetic face and chest plates, while the riders wore old-fashioned NYPD uniforms. When the figures stopped, he could see that they didn't have faces. Just flat sheets with scanner slits. Up close, in the sodium lights, the scan masks were scraped and cloudy. From the south came bursts of gunfire and thudding low-frequency music, but here it was quiet enough to hear their echolocation sonar. His heart bounced as he smelled the tense, strangely sweet animal scent of the horses. At last a flare of static passed between the two mounted shapes. Then, just as they'd appeared, they moved on, the horses' hooves striking the asphalt with a timeless Roman rhythm, their imposing silhouettes fading into the trees.
The moment they were past, from behind one of the spray painted boulders, a figure wrapped in matte-black cable tape wearing an NV helmet leapt out. "Yer ass is lucky," the shadow said, grabbing one of his hands in a neoprene fighting glove -- weaving through a labyrinth of stripped cars and barbed-wire effigies. They looked like origami contrasted with the turrets rising above the park, armorguard facets gleaming like reptilian crystals. "Hurry," his guide called out. "Meter says you gonna have a meltdown."
The darkness became a membrane of endlessly falling slow motion snow, only the flakes were like glass faces, painfully intricate but beautiful to behold. "This way!" the figure called, and it was like stepping through a wall of cool white light. Suddenly, all around were people. He felt a dart of warmth hit his arm. Then he fell, and he seemed to keep falling, or rising, as if he'd been taken up inside a whirlwind, faces and disintegrated memories orbiting around him. A whirlwind, he remembered. I came here by whirlwind.
When at last the spinning stopped, the bodies and the faces had stabilized, and standing over him was a large black woman who, as his eyes began to focus, he came to see was in fact a man, wearing makeup, an aqua wig, and a long African-style robe over sheepskin boots from which a Beretta Cheetah was just visible.
"We've given you some ZENO," the vision informed him. "Try not to move fast."
He was lying in a tent on an old cot. Candles glowed. Through a gelpane window he could see people passing between radomes and tepees. He heard an accordion and smelled marsala. Sparks rose from oil drums.
"Yo," a voice behind him said, and he saw it was the tape-mailed figure who'd found him minus the night-vision helmet -- a Puerto Rican girl of about sixteen with a pigskin face graft that suggested a dark market burn ward.
"Who are you?" the large black woman/man asked.
He tried to focus. He couldn't get over his long blond hair. There wasn't an ounce of fat on him and yet for all the hardness of muscle, his skin was smooth. Except for the terrible burning he felt now on his back. That's what made me black out, he realized. Pain. Pain from the skin of my back. There was something there but he couldn't bring himself to think of it. Voices rustled in his brain ... Last hope ... Psyche War ... beneath the sadness of a blues guitar drifting in on the night wind from somewhere far away -- or deeper inside himself.
"Do you know who you are?" the large black woman/man repeated, but he couldn't answer. Who were these people and what did they want? Where had he been going when he fell out of the whirlwind?
To meet someone, he thought. To find someone. There's somewhere I have to be. There's someone I have to be.
"That's all right," the dark-skinned giant said. "Let's start with where you are. You're in New York City. In a part of Central Park that no one but us knows exists. We call it Fort Thoreau. It's a kind of sanctuary. We refer to ourselves as the Satyagrahi, and I'm Aretha Nightingale."
So saying, the speaker brought over a psykter of purified water and poured a cup for him, carefully considering the man's white blond hair and tomorrow-staring eyes. There was something intriguingly familiar and at the same time deeply foreign about this night visitor. He was of average height and certainly less than average weight, but he radiated a presence that filled the tent.
The man drank some water and said, "You're a --"
"A drag queen? That's right, honey, I am!"
In fact the speaker looked like a former linebacker trying very hard to imitate some forgotten disco singer like Donna Summer.
"Used to be a lawyer. Lead counsel for the largest insurance company in the world. Lived a few blocks away. Of course I had to keep my private life secret. Then one day I saw I had to get out of the limo and back behind the mule. But that's another story. That's my story. Tinkerbell says the Securitors let you skiddo."
"Me." The PR girl winked, laser-edging a frozen-forged Gerber blade.
"Is someone after you?" Aretha asked, noticing again how long and blond the odd man's hair was, how outwardly strained and yet internally resilient he appeared.
"I don't know ... I can't ..."
Aretha picked up a detector and ran it over him. The device recorded an electromagnetic disturbance of an unknown kind.
"So do you have any idea who you are?"
"N-no. I ... don't ... ," the man said, staring around at the walls of the tent, which he saw through the gloom were decorated with chintzy Chinese fans, kimonos, and ostrich feathers.
"And you don't know how you got here?" Aretha prodded.
The blond man thought for a minute. Beyond the crazy idea of falling out of a whirlwind all he remembered was staring at the syringes in the fountain and then being seized with a scorching pain across his back. "No," he said finally. "I only remember the things on horses."
"We're going to give you a bioscan," Aretha announced. "The psychometer that Tink had shorted out on you. You had a brainwave reading that we've never seen before. Makes Saint Anthony's Syndrome and Pandora withdrawal look like an attack of the jitters. Is there anything else that comes to mind ... right this minute? | November 2005
Copyright © 2005 Kris Saknussemm
Kris Saknussemm's work has appeared in the Boston Review, River Styx, The Hudson Review, the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Kansas Quarterly, the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry, Prairie Schooner, the Southwest Review, and Rosebud. He lives in Australia with his dingo.
Excerpted from Zanesville by Kris Saknussemm Copyright © 2005 by Kris Saknussemm. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.