Karoo by Steve Tesich
Michael Bywater rediscovers a masterly comic tragedy
It is the day after Christmas. Saul Karoo, script doctor, stands in the McNabs’, swish apartment on the seventh floor of the Dakota Building chatting merrily about the fall of the Ceaucescus.
But something has gone wrong with him. He has lost the ability to get drunk. He has no idea why.
“Something had snapped off or screwed off or come undone inside of me... I really didn’t have a clue. All I knew for sure was that getting drunk was gone from my life.”
There are those who pray for such a deliverance; not Saul Karoo. He drinks more and more, without effect. It is a social catastrophe, for Karoo is a drunk. So he pretends to be drunk, rather than “disappoint those who knew me. They expected me to be drunk. I was the contrast by which their sobriety was measured.”
Odd that a masterly exercise in that apparently most Dionysian of forms, the picaresque satirical novel, should begin with such an Apollonian curse as the inability to get drunk. Odd, but entirely appropriate, not least because Karoo is a book haunted by the ghosts of gods.
The story it tells is, superficially, straightforward enough. Saul (“Doc”) Karoo makes his substantial living salvaging other people’s films: a sub-plot cut here, a character inserted there. His marriage has failed but he and his wife meet regularly to have dinner, debate their divorce and hate each other. He is an expert in “evasion of privacy”, picking up a woman at the McNabs’ party to avoid having to spend time alone with his adopted son. His inner life is collapsing, as is his outer: a medical examination for health insurance reveals that he has shrunk downwards and expanded outwards. The tipping-point in Karoo’s trajectory comes when he is asked to doctor a film by the octogenarian master-director, Arthur Houseman, the “Old Man”. The demonic film producer Jay Cromwell – “a film producer by profession, but he could have been a head of state or some charismatic religious figure with messianic powers... when you sat across a table from him, it was like confronting a warhead with human features. He was the only man I knew personally who was truly evil”– wants Karoo to script-doctor the Old Man’s last film, ostensibly to save Houseman’s reputation. Karoo recognises that it is in reality a perfect masterpiece. But he also recognises in the laugh of a bit-part actress the voice – heard once on the telephone – of the mother of his adopted son, and sets off to Hollywood to rewrite her into the film and into his family.
The consequences are predictably terrible, artistically and emotionally; the Old Man’s masterpiece is figuratively destroyed and lives literally so. But this bare outline does not begin to capture the righteous fury and technical virtuosity with which Tesich tells his story. The calumniating of Hollywood and all its works are unsurprising from one who was himself an Oscar-winning screenwriter (Tesich died of a heart attack, aged 53, shortly after Karoo was published); the broader significance of his denunciations, again, unsurprising in a Serbian who came to America aged fourteen and remained deeply polarized about the USA and its role in the world, accusing its government and culture of being “a virus... worse than Aids” and of “niggerising” the world outside its borders.
Karoo has been compared to Herzog and A Confederacy of Dunces, but it is a more complex text than either of those.
Not only is Karoo, in truth, a tragedy – and distinguishing tragedy from comedy by mere plot delineation is one of the hardest tricks in the critical book – it is also a meta-tragedy: a tragedy about tragedy.
Saul Karoo is himself in many ways the perfect Aristotelian tragic hero, neither “pre-eminent in virtue and justice” nor guilty of “vice and depravity” but, rather, of hubris which in turn leads him to an act of hamartia: a simple mistake, a missing of the target. All the tragic plot-points are there, too: the peripeteia, in which the tide of events which seemed to be bringing the hero home to safety is in fact sweeping him away to desolation; the anagnorisis, the moment of recognition (of the woman’s laugh; of the true sweep of the tide); the monstrously disproportionate nemesis (and if tragedy is about one thing, it is about disproportionality of consequences); and the final katharsis – not a “purging” but a rebalancing of the world.
Digging for intertextualities is always fraught with danger, but there are too many in Karoo for coincidence to be responsible, and no screenwriter could fail to be aware of the structures of tragedy, nor of the tremendous reliance Hollywood places upon Christopher Vogler’s twelve-step boiling-down of the plot of The Odyssey. Tragedy, Ulysses’s journey (and his nostalgia, his terrible yearning for home), the gods who play with us: all are present, both explicitly and implicitly, throughout Karoo. The title itself is not simply derived from the Khoisan word for “land of thirst” but is also the collective name for the click languages of southern Africa, such as !Xhosha and !Kung. The only time a westerner would have heard them is in the 1980 film called The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which that symbol of America, a Coca-Cola bottle, brings terrible strife to a group of Kalahari bush farmers, is stigmatised as The Evil Thing, and has to be hurled from the edge of the earth. Karoo’s forename, Saul, is fraught with religious signification; his accountant lectures him on the gods.
“You think you’re too sensitive, too artistic to put up with such mundane things like health insurance... You ever hear of hubris? This is hubris, Saul. This is fucking hubris up the ass. This is you thumbing your nose at Zeus... I went to Yale. So when I say hubris, I know what I’m talking about, and when I say Zeus, I know who Zeus is.”
The echoes are everywhere, from the reworking of the Oedipus tragedy to Karoo’s abandonment by tragedy’s god, Dionysos and to the final pages where Karoo (“A man like me, incapable of playing the role of a man properly, should not try playing God with the lives of others”) is translated from his own drama to become Ulysses, tragedy’s father, adrift beyond space as his own katharsis approaches.
“There is no up or down. No things that loom on the horizon. No horizon for that matter. There is only the void and a voyager within it.
“There are no corners to turn in this void, or bends to go around that reveal a vision or a vista. Therefore it is not only next to impossible but entirely impossible to convey the manner in which Ulysses suddenly sees God the Creator... The God he sees is a working God... hurling himself from the outermost edge of existence into the nothingness beyond, plowing into that nothingness like a living plowshare and causing more time and space to be born. Over and over again, the Creator hurls, and keeps on hurling Himself, into nothingness... Ulysses sails on after him in the wake of new world being born.”
Satire? Yes; savage indictments (as they say) abound. Funny? Yes, often brilliantly so. More than that, though, Karoo is utterly sui generis. You will indeed laugh out loud. But later, perhaps as you sleep, it will reassemble itself into something darker, something more disturbing; something ancient.■
Karoo is published by Vintage