Thursday, December 15, 2005

I Want to Buy a Vowel (revisited)

Otherwise well-read John confessed in comments that he'd never heard of local boy John Welter, so here's a review I'd published in Creative Loafing several years back about his third novel---


John Welter, the Carrboro former shoe salesman
whose earlier scathingly funny satires have lambasted the
press and the secret service, turns the spotlight on both
religious fundamentalists and U.S. immigration policy in his
latest, I Want To Buy a Vowel. As in the earlier novels,
hilarity, insanity and canned luncheon meats run amok.

Alfredo Santayana, a 17-year-old Guatemalan, finds
himself in Waxahachie, Texas, with a green card chipping
paint to reveal the words "Western Auto" underneath and a
smattering of English phrases that he doesn't understand but
learned from watching TV: Beam me up, Scotty; Have you
driven a Ford lately; I'm not going to pay a lot for this
muffler.
He's working in a Chinese restaurant, camping out
in a deserted house believed by the area children to be
haunted. He's also dreaming of buying a vowel, which "The
Wheel of Fortune" has assured him is one of the most
precious things on earth.

If life isn't hard enough already on Alfredo, enter
Kenlow Schindler, minister's son, "just an ordinary boy who
couldn't play football or do anything that might make him
seem valuable or desirable to anyone at all." Kenlow intends
to become "a recreational satanist," one who employs
"affordable" rituals that don't "require actually killing
anything or becoming friends with Satan."

Kenlow couples Vienna sausages, pork brains and
chicken giblets with pentagrams drawn in the dirt and the
town, media and fundamentalists go nuts. Nevermind that
there's no mutilated lifestock, no true evidence of any
sinister crime in the town, nevermind that sarcastic police
chief James McLemore tells a reporter that "based on all the
geometric evidence so far accumulated, it wasn't Satan they
should be looking for. It was Euclid." Once little girls Eva
and Ava Galt unearth a human bone during their dinosaur dig
near Alfredo's hiding place (later identified as that of a
possible 1929 cult victim), it's only a matter of time
before Alfredo is jailed, subjected to a whole-jail
exorcism, and threatened with deportation if a job too
demeaning for any real American to want cannot be found for
him.

To further complicate matters, Kenlow's father,
whose sermon notes include "Why Satan might make his
presence known through pork brains" and "Satan and the
apocalypse, as manifested in giblets," must contend with
"pornographic" scenes from the Bible being painted on the
ceiling of the local grocery. Chief McLemore is sidelined by
the FBI when a stamp machine with a believed likeness of the
Virgin Mary is stolen from the post office. Eva's parents
are only going through the motions of their marriage and Eva
prays to Ted Williams rather than God (this daughter of an
Episcopalian priest can't pray to a faceless entity) to make
them happy once again, all the while trying desperately to
help Alfredo and stand up to Kenlow's threats of brown-
bagged gall bladders and unsigned letters.

For me, the book's most poignant, serious-in-
intent moment comes when Eva's father tries to explain to
his daughter that no matter how much anyone knows about
religion, no one can say for sure why God leaves it up to
people to try to solve the problems of the world. His
explanation becomes an outloud musing into how the Bible was
put together: ". . . we have four Gospels. Sometimes it
makes me think that when the Bible was being written, there
was a short story contest, and the top four entries were
chosen for the collection. Actually, there were several
other gospels, but I think the editors sent out rejection
letters saying 'We already have four gospels. That's
enough.'"

Welter's third person narration, a departure from
the first person used in his earlier novels, capably juggles
its many characters, plot threads and funny lines. While
Eva is shown to be depressed and frightened at times, she
never comes across as a whine as did Welter's first person
narrators in Begin to Exit Here and Night of the Avenging
Blowfish.
Unfortunately, the skipping about from character to
character keeps all but Eva from becoming unforgettable
people; the reader only knows enough to regard them as
deserving of ridicule or pity, rather than experiencing them
as fully rounded.

That's a minor complaint in a satirical work,
though. Welter addresses religious freedom, the treatment of
illegal aliens and sheer lunacy in a guaranteed laugh-out-
loud style. If social issues can be regarded as his
characters, Welter has exposed them in all their multi-sided
vulnerability.

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