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By Richard Melo
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
What do you get when you cross a morphine addicted student nurse at a Haiti medical school, a joint mission by the US Department of State and UNESCO to turn the island into an Atlantic version of Hawaii, and a writing style reminiscent of William Gaddis? What you get is Happy Talk, a new novel by Portland-area author Richard Melo. The novel follows the misadventures of Josie, the aforementioned junkie student nurse, and Culprit Clutch, a wannabe filmmaker cavorting around Haiti on the State Department's dime. Taking place in the 1950s, but also hop-scotching around time and location, Melo barrages the reader with comical dialogue and a farcical satire on nation-building.
One of joys of book reviewing is discovering new voices. I was glad to come across Richard Melo's novel via Red Lemonade, an alternative publishing platform. An unintended consequence of book reviewing (and being a voracious word-devourer) is finding connections between books. In this case, I had just finished Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. Melo's novel possesses the same manic comedy, anarchic spirit, and libidinous characters. (Having never read John Gaddis, I can't make any parallels, although JR is on the To Be Read pile.) The comparisons to Pynchon and Gaddis are apt, since this is a comedy for a specific audience. General readers might be thrown for a loop. The swaths of unattributed dialogue (something Gaddis is known for) and other formalistic touches will present a challenge, but they aren't insurmountable. (Keeping Bedlam at Bay at the Prague Cafe by M. Henderson Ellis is pretty straightforward, while Seth Kaufman's King of Pain splits the difference between a conventional narrative and metafictional tomfoolery.)
In the novel there are confused tourists, a town built by "zombis" (Melo's spelling), and spy games. Even with all the temporal shifts and shifting dialogue, the novel is pretty easy to follow. "--Stagecraft and statecraft are far more closely aligned than our colleague in the State Department would have the world believe, eh, Fitzpatrick?" The two diplomats/spies are Patrick Fitzpatrick and Bayard Pumphrey Huffy, stationed in Haiti's Nord Department. Since this is Haiti, there's also the obligatory appearance of Baron Samedi and zombies. Except in this case, the zombie is a Swede.
Melo writes a singularly bizarre, but altogether enchanting comic novel about love, diplomacy, gun-toting student nurses, and nation-building.
Out of 10/8.1
Read even more about Happy Talk: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia