Michael "Caruso" Taylor is a man with a problem. He can't speak. In fact, he can't do much of anything the way he once used to. A successful English professor, he can hardly compose a coherent sentence, or remember much of anything he once knew. On top of this, he is slowly regressing toward infancy. He calls it "The Wasties," a condition with no known cause and no known cure. He throws his sippy cup. He bites his nurse. He tries to wall himself into his bedroom. He tries to run away. But as Caruso slips further and further away from sanity and adulthood, his mental life begins to soar. Distinctive, funny and deeply affecting," The Wasties presents a unique vision that offers insights into madness, aging, notions of success, and the desire to abdicate from the responsibilities of adulthood.
Alienation cloaks itself in a new and blackly humorous guise in this third novel by Reuss (Henry of Atlantic City; Horace Afoot). English professor Michael "Caruso" Taylor has lost the ability to speak and embarks on a journey of infantilization that progressively strips him of his autonomy a condition he labels "the wasties." He grows entirely dependent on others: his pregnant wife, Gina; his nurse, Theresa; and a host of health-care professionals who attempt to rein in his childish impulses. Taylor communicates via scribbled messages, IBM ThinkPad and hand gestures. This occasionally makes for humorous episodes, such as Taylor's psychosexual explanation to his therapist of why he bit Theresa's hand. A side effect of the wasties includes seeing famous people, often long deceased (Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, John Muir), in prosaic disguise (e.g., Ralph Ellison as a male nurse) and occasionally holding conversations with them. Reuss employs this device effectively at first, since such interactions match Taylor's deteriorating condition, yet as they multiply, they grow stale. Another problem is the novel's dependence on Taylor's observations and thoughts, which lose their bite as Taylor sinks into greater dependence. In his previous novels, Reuss proved himself to be a highly original and idiosyncratic thinker. Here he manages flashes of insight into the innate human desire to flee communication and autonomy, but flounders as the novel floats free of solid plot and character development. Still, Reuss's insouciant weirdness Taylor takes to communicating in fragments of Simon and Garfunkel songs and he does the hokey pokey to NPR as part of his physical therapy gives the novel a loopy charm. (Aug. 21) Forecast: The cultish appeal of Henry of Atlantic City and Horace Afoot won Reuss a small following of devoted readers. The Wasties won't broaden his reach, but should satisfy most fans. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 19, 2005
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Excerpt from The Wasties by Frederick Reuss
It seeps--an egg-white smear that brightens the eastern horizon behind a veil of smoke, exhaust and dust. The smoke rises from burning wood, cow patties and old tires, meager flames of commerce for kebab shops and bakers, metalsmiths and brick kilns. The worst of the exhaust sputters from buzzing blue swarms of motor rickshaws, three-wheeled terrors that careen between horse carts and overloaded buses.
But it was the dust that Najeeb Azam knew best. Like him, it had swirled down from the arid lands of the Khyber and never settled, prowling restlessly in the streets and bazaars as if awaiting a fresh breeze to carry it to some farther, better destination.
In the morning it coated his pillow, a faint powder flecked with soot. In the evening he wiped it from his face and coughed cinders into a handkerchief, never quite able to flush it from either pores or lungs. Wherever he traveled it went along for the ride, a parasite, a little gift from his adopted home. He was respectful of its mysterious cloaking powers, because things had a way of disappearing in Peshawar--people, ideas, entire political movements. They would be loud and noticeable one day, only to vanish without a trace the next, and with each new day someone or something else always seemed to have gone missing.
A Peshawar dawn nonetheless had its charms, and Najeeb liked to rise early to savor them. So, on a warm morning in mid-October he stood in the darkness of his small kitchen a half hour before sunrise, brewing tea while listening to Mansour's horse cart leaving for the bazaar. He knew without looking that the old man stood like a charioteer on a narrow wooden flatbed, reins in hand, pomegranates and tomatoes piled behind him, the baggy folds of his shalwar kameez flowing ghostlike in the pale light. The lonely clip-clop was soothing, yet also a sort of warning, like the ticking of a bomb. It was part of Peshawar's daily countdown to chaos. Soon enough the narrow streets would explode with vehicles, animals and people, beggars and merchants elbow to elbow as both cried out for rupees.
The loudspeaker of a nearby mosque crackled to life. Najeeb strolled to the living room, setting his teacup on a shelf and kneeling, lowering his forehead to the rug in prayer. This, too, was a ritual of tranquillity, yet it never seemed quite peaceful enough here.
In the tribal lands of his boyhood the muezzin's cry had been a solitary call, haunting and lovely. He used to pretend the message was for him alone, and to Najeeb there was still no grander expression of power than the words Allahu akbar, "God is great," when carried on a morning breeze across empty countryside. But in Peshawar there were more muezzins than he could count, and their calls became an unruly conversation--one voice trumping another in a war above the rooftops. Cats yowling over turf. Or perhaps Najeeb was turning into an infidel, a worldly backslider. A Kafir, as his father's Pashtun tribesmen would have said. Life never seemed half so holy now as it once had, and in a country where not only a man's calling but also his marriage was generally set in stone by age eighteen, Najeeb was still a work in progress at twenty-seven.
As a boy he'd roamed a wonderland of extremes, a rural princeling at play among bearded, turbaned men with rifles slung on their backs, all of whom owed their allegiance to his father. After breakfast he might sprint barefoot through the dew of waist-high poppies, dodging marauding boys from the village with slingshots round their necks. As the sun climbed higher he sought the refuge of high defiles to watch smuggler parades of camels and horses, teatime caravans swaying and clanking through the passes. Then, off to bed on the verandah of his father's hujera, the men's guest house, where he gazed up at stars so icy bright that it seemed they might pierce his skull. Pleasantly weary, he stretched out on a rope bed, eavesdropping on his father's guests and supplicants --smoky, piratical gatherings in the hujera's great room, with hubble-bubble hookahs and high-caliber bandoleers, lulling him to sleep with the streamside murmur of their mutter and growl, and the whine and hum of their radio, beaming news from the great beyond. Occasionally a burst of laughter or an angry shout shouldered into his dreams, but by morning there were only him and the muezzin beneath another clear sky.
Yet that world also had its special cloaking magic. It was a place where he learned quickly to conceal his thoughts and dreams, and from his earliest years Najeeb's elders taught him to hold in his emotions, sheathing them like a weapon.
At the age of eighteen he abruptly left that world behind, dispatched across the seas to a university in the United States. It was his father's idea, a vain stab at worldliness to impress a few haughty ministers in the government corridors of Islamabad. Najeeb went reluctantly, and for months he held himself sternly under wraps, bookish and brooding through a North Carolina winter amid airless dreams of home.