Book Review: The Maenad’s God
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
An engaging metafictional romp through an improbable New England
The Maenad’s God by Karen Michalson is a tale of rock ‘n’ roll and organized crime, narrated from the amusing perspective of an FBI agent from Boston. In 1992, Peter Morrow works in the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, an edifice he wonderfully compares at length to a “large white bone.” His job requires him to pursue “fellow government workers who go berserk and shoot other government workers.”
On an average day, he’s given an autopsy report that says, in part: “Brain removed and replaced by a live mouse. Mouse had a pink ribbon around its neck and the ribbon was attached to one of those computerized greeting cards that play ‘Happy Birthday’…” This corpse has mysteriously dematerialized.
Meanwhile, he’s supposed to be investigating organized drug crime between Providence and Boston. The mob knows who he is, and the journalists are running stories about him.
What you’ll get out of this strange novel isn’t the blow-by-blow of how a drug ring is busted. It’s a character-driven story of interpersonal relationships and a general wonder at the explosive funniness of life. The dominant voice is irony and camp, even leaning into the 1970s-style bizarro that has been called “high weirdness,” but there are also glimpses of sincere existential questioning.
Peter, complaining of a sense of unrealness, reports “dragging through my workday like I was dragging through heavy water for a rain-soaked corpse.” This is his life, though. He’s curious about the present, and he’s aware of others’ nostalgia for the recent past. He raises questions about poetry, music, creation itself: Isn’t it all about “the artist turning your own emptied life into whatever you wanted to be before the world?” He has a lot of depth, not only in how he navigates his meticulously detailed, carnivalesque professional and social worlds, but in his own kind of sensitivity and humor.
Peter meets Jade McClellan, a musical icon. His band, Black Dog, calls itself a cover band because that’s where the money is, but it shows up and plays whatever it likes. “Black Dog is really an idea—like anything else,” Jade admits. He doesn’t just reproduce tunes; he creates them. The music is “sound spilling rivers of blood opening memories for buried lives. The audience loved it. They didn’t know enough not to.”
Jade addresses Peter in the speech of literary romantic fantasy from a bygone era. They admit their attraction. At first, they are open about their gay relationship—the rock star and the federal agent—but that eventually becomes complicated. For one thing, Peter encounters a moralistic movement that opposes rock ’n’ roll, never mind “homosexual practices.”
The narrator is unique and memorable: a gay FBI agent who appreciates potpourri aromatherapy with his gun at the ready. Michalson also surprises readers with language that describes, for example, what it is to feel “like an old sea mollusk might feel dying on an Iowa plain.”
It’s a long novel, and the length is part of the point. In 1992, before we were online, we read longer books. We also kept tapes and eventually had to decide what to do with those physical recordings. The self-awareness of the medium is why this works as metafiction. Besides, it takes a long time—decades, really—to realize whether you are (or are not) a “brilliant, popular, bass god,” yourself or someone else, “something out of myth,” or a fictional character.
Genre: Literary & General Fiction / Metafiction / LGBTQ+
Print Length: 432 pages
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