July 2010

Guy Cunningham

fiction

Mesopotamia by Arthur Nersesian

Arthur Nersesian is a New York writer. His debut novel The Fuck-Up remains one of the most notable depictions of the Lower East Side of the late 1980s. Follow-ups like Manhattan Loverboy, The Swing Voter of Staten Island, and The Sacrificial Circumcision of the Bronx stayed just as close to home -- which makes his new work, the satirical crime story Mesopotamia, a departure of sorts. Sure, its heroine, Cassandra Bloomgarten, lives in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen -- but she is a native of small-town Tennessee, and her adventures don’t truly begin until she heads home.

Cassandra’s life in New York is a mess. She’s thousands of dollars in debt. Her marriage is over. Her career as a reporter for supermarket tabloids is fading, undone by her alcoholism and indifference. Even her apartment is falling apart. By luck, she gets offered a job in Memphis “covering” the disappearance of a woman named Missy Scrubbs, who the tabloids are convinced was murdered by her millionaire husband. Cassandra is blunt about what the assignment really means:

Aside from its therapeutic effects on my slowly smothering depression, the job could also earn me some desperately needed cash. More importantly, though, it would put me near to my deservedly neglected mama from Mesopotamia, Tennessee. I was going to drive from one land between the rivers to another in hope of borrowing yet more money.

Cassandra justifies that side trip by telling her editor she wants to poke around Missy’s hometown of Daumland (a neighbor of Mesopotamia). And when Cassandra’s “reconciliation” with her mother falls apart, she ends up at a Daumland bar called the Blue Suede. There, she stumbles upon a murdered Elvis impersonator. When she learns that this isn’t Daumland’s first “Elvis” slaying, Cassandra can’t resist digging for a new tabloid story. After all, Elvis and murder are the two greatest tabloid subjects of all.

That curiosity comes in handy soon after, when she manages to get herself fired from the Scrubbs story. Now the Elvis murders are Cassandra’s only shot at a sellable piece. The ensuing investigation leads her into an ever-widening conspiracy, involving an Elvis-themed bar, the widow of an Elvis-loving meth dealer, a pack of roughnecks with connections to Presley himself, and the biggest annual Elvis impersonator contest in Tennessee.

If this sounds like a lot of Elvis, it is. The King of Rock n’ Roll embodies the tabloid excess Nersesian that wants to skewer, and much of the book is dedicated to lightly mocking Elvis culture. But there is some real affection underneath the barbs. When a single mother named Vinnetta observes, “There’s a lot of shame in Elvis’s music, a lot of remorse,” it seems like a joke at first -- she’s explaining why she makes her children sing Elvis songs as a form of punishment. But then, after a second’s thought, the comment comes across as a pretty deft observation about why so many people connect so deeply with Elvis Presley’s work.

In fact, Cassandra herself ends up getting caught in her own version of “Elvis mania” -- to the point where she even defends his oft-maligned movies: “Though they weren’t exactly Citizen Kane, it was still an impressive body of work considering the short span he had lived, only nine years longer than Jesus.”

Yes, she just compared Elvis with Jesus Christ.

This is satire, of course, and it’s supposed to be over the top. By design, the book often edges into shaggy-dog territory. But the craziness only serves to let Nersesian take aim at his true target -- the national media. Allusions to the original Mesopotamia (i.e., Iraq) and the subprime mortgage crisis drift just below the surface, giving bite to the book’s comedy. Very sneakily, Nersesian has managed to write a book of ideas (albeit a very funny one).

Nersesian knows not to lecture his readers; he just quietly alludes to the bigger picture and lets the reader do the rest. All along, Cassandra is working on another story -- a bigger one. She’s learned that budget cuts and a poorly implemented reorganization have left FEMA less effective during a year that promises “severe hurricane activity.” But she can’t sell it -- even her soon-to-be-ex-husband, a successful TV news producer, isn’t interested, because, “It’s only news after a disaster.” Later, when she mentions a “hurricane heading into Florida” named Katrina, it’s not surprising -- or funny. It’s just a rather brutal reminder of what is risked when the news focuses on the outrageous.

Mesopotamia by Arthur Nersesian
Akashic Books
ISBN: 1936070081
225 Pages