Don’t be fooled. Though it sounds like the ”companion volume” (free with your membership pledge of $100 or more) to an educational series on PBS, The Planets actually resembles a prime-time sitcom on the Fox network — sloppy, flaky, as dumb as it is funny, and jubilantly subversive.
In James Finney Boylan’s first novel, a staid Philadelphia banker dumps his naked and unconscious mistress into a canoe and sends her drifting down a river; a lovesick woman hurls a live rabbit through a window pane; a musician strangles a dalmation; and an old hermit (whose diet consists of cow brains + and fondue) threatens to blast everyone she meets, her own son included, with a double-barreled shotgun. Nevertheless, when a handyman (whose diet consists entirely of beer and chewing gum) muses at the story’s conclusion that ”it was in the nature of men and women to be kind,” we’re inclined — crazily enough — to agree with him. Subversive, indeed.
Set on Easter Sunday 1984 in the ghost town of Centralia, Pa., where a mine fire has been smoldering for 22 years, and using flat, uninflected language that’s the prose equivalent of videotape, The Planets juggles half a dozen stories and a large cast of friendly eccentrics. Here’s police officer James Calcagno, who pines for his dead wife every time his radiator sizzles, and here’s the Outcast, a burro-riding stickup man who specializes in knocking over hardware stores (”The smell of them! All that sawdust and plastic and fertilizer! Just makes me feel so damn alive, you know what I mean?”). And here’s Judith Lenahan, ”a mime, an orphan, and a nudist,” who crops her luxurious red hair in a gesture of reinvention, and teenage Demmie Wilkins, who swathes her face with Gillette Foamy before strapping on her Stratocaster and playing ”Wild Thing” in her bedroom. And here’s Edith Schmertz — star-crossed Edith Schmertz — who fails to pull her parachute’s ripcord and ends up smashing through the roof of a summer cottage, a misadventure that springs the plot.
Accidents pile up until, at last, all the losers in Centralia, each an isolated, rogue ”planet,” meet and scuffle and find their quirky salvations — their realignments — in the grim, dusty hallways of James Buchanan Memorial High School, ”the kind of place that took innocent…children and turned them into hooligans and maniacs and gorillas.”
All’s well that ends neatly, but it’s Boylan’s I’m-making-this-up-as-I-go-along spontaneity that gives the fiction its endearing kick, its dangerous edge, and its daffiest non sequiturs (”Oh, I know what that’s like, to run over someone’s pet. I once punctured a life raft with my shoe”). This is fiction for the sheer giddy fun of it. How many other novels would provide you with a chart of their characters’ favorite breakfast cereals? B