Callisto is a satirical black comedy of an American novel written, ironically, by a New Zealander, pseudonymed Torsten Krol. Perhaps it takes an outsider to see the forest for the trees where the trees are patriotism in the wake of 9/11 and the forest is Bush’s War on Terror. Krol has an acute eye and shares his vision with humor.
The narrator, protagonist and anti-hero of Callisto is one Odell Deefus, a 22-year old lost soul from Wyoming. Estranged from his nasty father and bored with his job at a grain silo, Odell decides to join the Army to go fight against the “Muslimites.” As the author notes in the book’s afterward, his “hero is someone who actually thinks the Iraq conflict is something a true patriot should take part in …” – not to mention that serving in the war against Iraq may help Odell in his quest to meet his one true love, Condoleezza Rice.
Unfortunately for Odell, his beater of a car breaks down in Callisto, Kansas, before he reaches the recruiting office. He wanders down a driveway, looking for help, and into the life of Dean Lowry, lawn-mowing impresario. Dean is suspicious and paranoid at first, but after some beers and most of a bottle of Captain Morgan spiced rum, the two seem to get along just fine. Until Dean startles a drunken Odell out of a sound sleep and ends up with a baseball bat upside the head for his trouble.
Things start to spiral for Odell: there is already a dead body in the freezer in Dean’s basement; Dean and his florid sister Lorraine, a corrections officer at the local penitentiary, are drug-runners; plus there’s all those lawns that need mowing. Some nosy televangelists, mistakenly thinking Odell to be a Koran-reading Dean, are out to save his soul. The local cops start sniffing around, and, between the body in the basement and the Koran, Homeland Security, the FBI and, finally, the CIA get called in. It’s all Odell can do to keep track of which lies he’s told to what agencies and which truths are the ones he believes in.
To top it off, poor Odell is a little slow. He’s not impaired or even Forrest Gump-level innocent, but “[he has] to think awhile before [he talks,] but in the meantime the conversation has moved on, as they say, so forget that.” He’s well intentioned but simply can’t keep up with the maelstrom of events swirling around him. Odell is not a particularly attractive or likeable character, but the author writes him funny and startlingly astute in his own placid observations.
There’s not a lot that Krol doesn’t skewer in this snapshot of the American Heartland in 2007: sleazy televangelism, the interminable Presidential campaigning, the media’s short-lived obsessive feeding frenzy over news items, Homeland Security’s determined pursuit of evil doers. With its large cast of characters, the twisty-turny plot holds together impressively well, although I was turning the pages pretty quickly to get through the side trip to Guantanamo Bay at the end of the book.
Genre-wise, Callisto will remind readers of Catch-22 and Catcher In the Rye; historically, it will serve as a well-written, darkly comic marker against the Bush administration’s war on terror. Quite frankly, I look forward to reading what Torsten Krol has to say about America next.