Cosmo Dust Versus Mr. Universe

David Fick

"Carnivalesque" is one of those overstretched adjectives used to describe anything without an earth-toned color scheme. But there is also an actual ethos, a culture of Carnevale, like the one described by Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who believed that the creative hilarity of the carnival led to all that was wonderful in art and literature ever since Rabelais made his first rude noise on paper. His influential book Rabelais and His World describes carnival as basically putting reality in a bottle, shaking it up, and soaking the world in seltzer. Carnival culture is the opposite of holiday culture, but holiday culture imitates carnival, giving us a sanitized version. The perfect example of holiday culture is Las Vegas, an entire economy promising carnival and delivering only its sugar-free substitute. It's where artifice itself is turned into imitation, and it's where Gregory Blake Smith's book The Madonna of Las Vegas arrives like a troupe of clowns gleefully kicking over billboards and pulling off virtual-reality helmets. Cosmo Dust, the book's hero, is literally and figuratively a little guy. Up until the death of Cosmo's wife, the universe has been kind, but now it's turned against him, chasing him through the hall of mirrors that is Vegas. He's there painting an exact replica of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and replicas multiply in this book at such a merrily frantic pace, you don't know what the genuine article is anymore.

One would expect the impresario of such a circus to be all gesture and braggadocio, awash and awhirl with creative energy, sporting at the very least a dramatic mustache. Perhaps, inside, that's exactly who he is, but Smith presents a much calmer exterior. Sitting on his shaded and spacious three-season porch in Northfield, Minnesota, he's merely a man with a gentle voice and good posture, whose smile betrays an almost parental affection for his work. Although he defines himself as a fiction writer who teaches rather than the other way around, his 13 years at Carleton College have given him a patient professorial demeanor. His teaching has only made his work better, he asserts: "It's like exercising in the fiction gym." Fictionally speaking, then, he should be in shape by now. This is his third novel since his debut in 1986 with The Devil in the Dooryard, a rigorous but comic morality tale. Although slight of build, Smith carries himself with an athletic limberness, a bit like a dancer. When asked if he, like his fictional hero, is also short, he jumps up, as if to let you measure him. "I'm five foot ten," he says, "statistically normal, not tall by any means, but...." His protagonist is only 5'5" and is constantly referred to as "the shrimp." The dark forces of the universe taunt him in various guises. Evil, in fact, is the only constant in this book. If Cosmo is Smith's alter ego, it's only in the way that Cosmo is everyone's alter ego. The universe is out to get us, and it's laughing.

Evil may be the one thing in The Madonna that doesn't change, but it's hard to locate. Before any character, idea, or scenario in the book comes into focus, we're presented with its double: Venice, the beautiful old city, becomes "Venice," the breathtakingly realistic recreation; femme fatale and good-girl archetypes change places with such frequency that you don't really know which one the hero ends up with; Italian gangsters named Marco morph into Jewish gangsters named Meyer without so much as a paragraph break.

"I wanted to talk about the search for authenticity in this place...Las Vegas being the Mecca of artificiality," Smith says. But in the novel's Las Vegas there's a kind of authenticity to the artifice. For example, the employees at the Golden Calf casino play an elaborate game called "Love Assassin" in which they are given a "target" to seduce (and, presumably, abandon). Each target is assigned a status-based "difficulty rating." Everyone is trying to bag the next trophy. Not only is this just a titch more emotionally obscene than your average reality show, it's not even a new game; to some extent, everyone's played it.

"I wanted the story to take place somewhere where the rules were suspended," Smith says, "as if you had two doors to walk in. One was reality, but you walked in the door right next to it." This is the door earlier opened by writers like Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and Tom Robbins, and it leads not to the American Dream but to the Dream About America. In this kind of carnival, things go topsy-turvy; distinctions of class and background are temporarily upended. Thugs talk cultural criticism and cocktail waitresses quote Gnostic texts in High Latin. Whimsy is the order of the day, and anything can happen.

Smith himself comes from a blue-collar family of Torrington, Connecticut, a manufacturing town in New England's small industrial belt, a place somewhere near the opposite of whimsical. Like many towns, Torrington suffered from the erosion of the manufacturing base. "Some towns have been able to come back, sort of recreating that industrial loft thing," he says, "but not poor old Torrington." It's true that a lot of towns in New England now make their money in quaintness, setting up loft-style condos in old manufacturing plants, or building new developments to look as if they were old manufacturing plants. It's this kind of crazed recreation that Smith's book is taking aim at, the windmill at which Cosmo Dust charges, armed with nothing but a funny name and true intentions.

Like any book involving pageantry and masquerade, The Madonna of Las Vegas is rife with Roman Catholic imagery. Smith was raised Methodist, but admits that Catholicism offers "the better dog and pony show." Smith says his use of religious imagery and narrative is not derogatory. "It's intense," he acknowledges, "but not negative." Which isn't to say that the novel isn't a poke in the ribs of orthodoxy. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says of the Carnival ethos that it "uncovers, undermines, even destroys any one idea that claims to have the final word." But The Madonna is also a simple, sad love story. In Venice's Carnevale, after all, one of the masked characters is always Pierrot, the heartbroken lover. The playful cleverness of postmodernism wafts through this book, but as Smith says, "none of that cerebral cleverness is worth much without heart."

Toward the interview's end, Smith's wife and kids arrive. They have been out celebrating their cat's birthday. A piece of birthday cake is even offered. The cat is in hiding, sulking under a couch somewhere. Cats, unlike characters, can't be forced to participate in any carnival not of their choosing.

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