April 10, 2014

Book Review: "Worst. Person. Ever." by Douglas Coupland

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Worst. Person. Ever.
By Douglas Coupland
Blue Rider Press/ Penguin Publishing Group
Reviewed by Travis Fortney

Maybe I'm stepping too far out on a limb here, but I'm going start this review by trying to describe a feeling. You see, I spend about an hour every afternoon walking the streets of Chicago. I've done this for years, because I live to serve an active black lab named Monte, who likes about a five mile walk in the afternoon. For the last couple years, we've walked in a loop that covers the southern part of Rogers Park and a large swath of Edgewater. It's fair to say that on this daily walk I've encountered more than my fair share of wretched humanity. I've seen more men than I can count duck into alleyways to pee. I've also seen a woman taking an actual dump, witnessed a shooting, observed countless drug transactions, and seen every kind of human decay, sickness and intoxication. Just yesterday, for example, two nearly toothless women who looked to be in their early sixties managed to corner me. One of the women talked, while the other looked at me openly, with large, glistening eyes. The speaker was having a difficult time making words, probably due to the copious amounts of substances she had spent the afternoon consuming. After she had spent ten or fifteen seconds stuttering in my direction, I deduced that she wanted money. Which is fine. I'm kind of a panhandler magnet, due to the fact that I was raised on a Christmas Tree farm in Ohio and have never fully mastered the urban art of walking right past a person with eyes fixed straight ahead. I should also mention that my dog is somewhat skittish. He tends to bark and lunge at people who act erratically. So when these two women cornered me, I was mostly concerned with escaping before my dog perceived a threat. I begged off, saying I didn't have any cash on me, which happened to be true. When I do have cash, I almost always give it up. I have let myself be conned out of amounts as large as twenty dollars, if the person who's doing the asking has a particularly good story. But yesterday, just as I had lowered my shoulder and managed to make a space between the two women, I was able to parse another string of words from the gibberish. "This is my baby." And I noticed that the woman was holding onto a rounded belly with two hands. I was shocked. She wasn't sixty, apparently, but rather was young enough to be of childbearing age. My instinct was to tell her that she needed to get to a hospital immediately, but I had just finally pushed through them and I wasn't about to stop. When I was twenty feet or so past them, I turned around and called back that I was sorry.

But let me gracefully retreat from our two toothless panhandlers to the somewhat safer territory of the alleyway pisser. I've seen this enough that I've come to a few broad judgments. First, the people you see aren't the only people who pee in alleyways. After all, I get it. You're far away from home, you're in an unfamiliar neighborhood, you don't feel like ducking into a store or restaurant and having them hassle you about buying something, you have a weak bladder, etc., etc. There are myriad reasons why a person might pee in an alley, and whatever the reason is, I'm down with it. And so I'm certain that I've born witness to only a small fraction of Edgewater's alleyway pissers. The behavior I'm judging isn't really peeing in an alleyway, though. It's peeing in an alleyway with witnesses around, without even bothering to step behind a dumpster for privacy.

The precise feeling I'm trying to describe occurs just after the pisser has whipped it out and loosed a steady stream, while you walk briskly away and try to erase the image of his penis from your mind's eye. In moments like this, you might find, if you're at all like me, that your expectations for all of humanity are suddenly knocked down a few pegs. And you might notice that your internal monologue has become a steady stream of invectives that you could never, under any circumstances, say to a living, breathing human being.

The reason Douglas Coupland's new novel The. Worst. Person. Ever. is my favorite read of the year so far is that there are moments in the book when narrator Raymond Gunt, an unemployed B-unit cameraman and lecherous creep whom Coupland calls a "walking, talking, hot steaming pile of pure id," bears a striking resemblance to my inner self in those rare moments when I see something that makes my kale-eating, grain-free dog-food-purchasing, tea-drinking persona give way to the total asshole who apparently exists at my core.

I won't go into too much detail describing the plot, but it's what you might call Coupland-esque and manages to combine a Survivor-style reality television show, nuclear holocaust, the Pacific Trash Vortex, SPAM-like Chinese canned meats, a severe allergy to Macadamia nuts, and a t-shirt featuring the band The Cure.

Sure, Raymond Gunt is a terrible person. He treats his mother, his ex-wife, homeless people, goats, skin tags and Cameron Diaz with the same casual cruelty. And this book is filthy. There's inventive profanity in practically every sentence. I'm not saying it's for everyone, but the fact remains that I haven't laughed out loud so often at a novel of this type since reading Martin Amis's Money several years ago, and I haven't been so thoroughly entertained by another book this year.


Out of 10: 10

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Filed by Travis Fortney at 10:20 AM, April 10, 2014. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |