Friday, September 10, 2010

Review: Zanesville by Kris Saknussemm


"The hidden may be seeking and the missing may return..."
The Legend of Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd

"Make a mistake with sacred and you get scared"
- Stinky Wiggler

     I first found out about Zanesville: A Novel (sometimes referred to as "The first book of the Lodemania Testament", whatever the hell that is) via completely random circumstances. I'd accidentally found's book reviews*, and after a quick look around at an alternate-history review written by (I believe) Joe R. Lansdale, I looked at the rest of the site. I actually got quite a few recommendations from the site that I still enjoy, but the only one I actually bought and am proud to keep as part of what I like to call "The Private Collection" is Zanesville. At the risk of sounding like some kind of toady, no matter what may be said about Kris Saknussemm, he is original. Very original. Maybe not so in his plotting, but certainly in every element other than that. If someone says "There are no original ideas any more", or "Everything's been done", just press this book into their hands and laugh maniacally. Oooh, also, tell them I send my regards.

      Zanesville tells the story of a man out of his depth-- a theme Saknussemm seems to revisit time and again. This time, the man is a young blond amnesiac who wakes up in Central Park. His only possessions seem to be a tracksuit emblazoned with a burning wheelbarrow logo on the chest and a set of burning scars reading "FATHER FORGIVE THEM F" across his back. Before the park's police can take him in, he is swept away by a huge black drag queen in an aqua-colored wig. And that's only the beginning of the story. It turns out the drag queen, an ex-lawyer built like a linebacker, is a major player in a rebel organization known as the Satyagrahi. The amnesiac they rescue (who they dub Clearfather) is possibly a messianic figure who will work against the Vitessa Cultporation, an organization that owns absolutely everything in America (and it is briefly hinted, the world). Given his massive and distinct endowment, his near-perfect security clearance, and his odd psychic effect, the rebels decide the best thing for him would be to send him to a sympathetic corporate executive named Julian Dingler and way the hell away from their base. And thus, Clearfather's journey begins.

      Already I feel like I've given too much away, but I've barely scratched the surface here. When I previously mentioned that Saknussemm is a master of overloading the reader with details, I'm not screwing around, and I could personally point to this book as evidence. The USA has been changed from a country into a massive, nightmarish amusement park...think a lethal version of Disney World on a country-wide or continental scale. Cartoon characters rampage through train stations. A gigantic fire-breathing Johnny Cash battles Oprah over the streets of a coast-spanning amusement park. And you, the reader, will never look at a barbershop quartet the same way again. Every page, a new act is added to the sideshow, a new bizarre situation is cooked up as Clearfather makes his way through the gritty and surreal streets of Philadelphia and from there across the country, encountering a lesbian biker gang, robotic blues musicians, and even (very possibly) a sort of god, against a backdrop of blimps that sell haggis and vivid yet hallucinatory set pieces that range from unsettling, Lynchian nightmare fuel to outtakes from acid-fueled cartoons. 

       But the best part of all of this, beyond any of the all-too-vivid images themselves, is that it all somehow fits together. Barring one or two scenes in particular, there are no moments where I was asking myself "How the hell did I get here?" or "Why the hell is this necessary?" There were a lot of moments where I was asking "What the hell?" but never once why. The book moves at a quick pace, and many of the parts seen as throwaway continue to be brought back. Take, for instance, Dooley Duck and Ubba Dubba, two cartoon characters who first campaign for realistic organs after Clearfather's meddling, and then create a political party to rival Vitessa, along with multiple riots. Like Private Midnight, which I reviewed earlier, it's one hell of a trip, but it seems both less sinister in intent, and less hallucinogenic. Then again, with a setting full of gay boxers, murderous amputees, and the rest, what would be grossly out of place in the hard-boiled world of Private Midnight is absolutely commonplace in Zanesville. I wouldn't even be surprised if Genevieve Wyvern or Birch Ritter were running Vitessa, in fact.

       Sadly, there are one or two scenes that don't fit together. The book hits a low following the convoluted sequence with a lesbian biker gang, involving several double crosses and what seems to be absolutely no light shed on the plot, though a lot happens and the plot does eventually advance. In the end, it just seems to be a way to get as much insanity into a tea-party scene as possible. After the scene there, the narrative takes a while to pick back up again, muddling its way through a sequence involving rednecks, mutants, and autistic children running around in hamster balls. The second lull in the action comes at the moment where Clearfather seems to have reached the end of his quest, featuring (weirdly enough) another tea party. By that point, the conclusions feel kind of false and hollow, and while it's possible that was the point, it feels more like Saknussemm simply ran out of ideas. The book pulls itself together to a rousing and brightly-colored climax where all the characters seem to get their ultimately happy ending, but after a dissatisfying reveal that Saknussemm spent most of the book building towards, it's a massive let down. Furthermore in the fact that the big relevatory sequences don't seem to go anywhere until near the tail end of the whole thing. 

       I could go on, but these are minor complaints, a way of picking pieces of grit off of a flawed yet ultimately enjoyable work. The point is, Zanesville is a lot of fun. It's a quick-moving work full of original ideas and insane imagery, and I am proud to own it. Find any way you can to read this, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I'll offer the caveat that it's a trip, and a rather bizarre and convoluted one at that, but it's still wholly enjoyable. I recommend this completely.

* no longer does book reviews now that they are Syfy (it's pronounced "Siffy"). You may be able to find the reviews at

Next Week: Either The Kingdom Beyond the Waves or the start of a new idea: Me reviewing the Twilight series.


  1. Can I just say, "a lethal version of Disney World on a country-wide or continental scale" <-- I like the sound of this. And I thought the It's a Small World ride was torture.

  2. Thanks. It's the best way I have of describing it.

  3. Your description actually reminds me of Zombieland, for some reason. :-)

  4. Cool!

    Not quite,'s...ah, hell, I can't get into it. That's the problem-- too much description on the setting gives away minor spoilers and good bits of the book, but if I tell people nothing, then it's not a review. Ever run into that?

  5. I got lost in life for a while and totally forgot that I was looking forward to your review of this book. But I remembered tonight!

    I knew you'd love it.

    You should know, the second in the series is due out in March 2011. It's a prequel, called Enigmatic Pilot.

  6. woohoo! Just in time for my birthday!