Ibid: A Life
by Mark Dunn
Published by Macadam/Cage
368 pages, 2004
Hilarity in the Margins
Reviewed by David Abrams
In his new novel, Mark Dunn has painstakingly chronicled the life of the world's most famous three-legged deodorant tycoon, Jonathan Blashette. Only trouble is, Dunn's editor lost the manuscript in an unfortunate bathtub accident, reducing the author's sole copy to a soggy, unreadable pulp. All that's left are the biography's footnotes.
Thus, with an exchange of fictional correspondence between Dunn and Pat Walsh, his real-life editor at Macadam/Cage Publishing, the wildly inventive and chokingly funny Ibid: a Life is off and running like drunk picnickers in a three-legged race. Yes, Dunn sometimes veers off course, but half the amusement comes from watching the story stumble around with hilarious riffs on everything from tent revivals to jigsaw puzzles before getting its bearings again and plowing ahead toward the finish line.
The novel is comprised entirely of footnotes so all we get are brief sentences charting the fictional Blashette's life, which are then expanded and expounded upon with the breathless, jokes-and-puns style Dunn displayed in his two previous novels, Ella Minnow Pea and Welcome to Higby. As Dunn explains in a letter to his editor after the loss of the "tragically water-pulped biography": While the notes illuminate the dusty, crepuscular corners of this man's life, they tell its story only through sidebar and discussion. The book, therefore, becomes a biography by inference.
Be honest: when was the last time you saw the word "crepuscular" used in such a witty context? For that matter, when was the last time you saw "crepuscular" used anywhere under any circumstances? Dunn peppers Ibid with esoteric language once found in florid, hyperbolic books published in the early 20th century. Books like Confessions to a Pee Pee Doctor by urologist Byron Blackfoot, My Life as a Wife-Slugging Bastard, with Afterword by Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle by Perry Jennings or When We From Sleep Awake by Rev. Boxer Seale, or periodicals like The Journal of American Amputation -- all sources cited in Ibid. Dunn celebrates the excess of American culture, throwing the entire 20th century into the pot and coming up with a rich stew of trivia and ephemera.
Jonathan Blashette, the Donald Trump of anti-perspirants, is everywhere in the country's cultural landscape, hobnobbing with celebrities and politicos. Among the many famous faces who make a cameo appearance in the footnotes: Aimee Semple McPherson, Evelyn Waugh, Leopold and Loeb, Dylan Thomas, Calvin Coolidge, Valentino and James Joyce. He dissuades McDonald's founder Ray Kroc from naming his sandwiches Krocburgers. He even has a hand in helping Lou Gehrig with his famous "I'm the luckiest man" speech. The deodorant king moves through history like Forrest Gump.
If there's a flaw in Ibid, it's this: we never get to know Jonathan Blashette as anything more than a cardboard cutout on the flannel board of history. We watch as, at 12, he joins Thaddeus Grund's Traveling Circus and Wild West Show. Later, he goes off to fight in World War I, where he comes up with the idea of manufacturing deodorant when he's stuck with stinky-pitted men in the trenches. We follow him through all the trials and tribulations of romance -- most of his fiancées and wives meet with tragic ends, leaving him bereft, but undaunted. We watch his meteoric rise in the business world with the Dandy-de-odor-o company, whose popular jingle in the Great Depression was "You won't find a job if you smell like a slob." We get all these facts and anecdotes told throughout the novel's marginal digressions, but we never see into the heart of Blashette or understand what makes him tick as the world's most famous three-legged man.
What's center stage in a novel like Ibid is, of course, the novel itself, and the way Dunn bends and twists the idea of what makes a book a book. He's not the first to tell a story through footnotes -- Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire springs to mind -- but he may be the funniest. Dunn, in fact, goes Nabokov one better by eliminating the source text. In Pale Fire, we had those four cantos of the narrative poem; but in Ibid, we have only the ghost of a lost, soggy text.
This gives Dunn the freedom to take off like a rubber ball bouncing around a many-walled room. Timing is everything in his witty repartee. The jokes roll off his pen like a sweaty-haired stand-up comic energized by an enthusiastic crowd on a good night.
Here's just one footnote, reproduced in its entirety to give you some idea of what to expect on these pages:
14. Love finds Jonathan Blashette. Mildred Boyers' family was relatively new to Pettiville. Her father sold Divine Bain sea sponges throughout a territory that included eastern Arkansas, northern Mississippi, and western Tennessee as well as, curiously, Atlantic City, New Jersey, where, it was said, he had a mistress named Sheila who either (sources disagree) ate lye and died, or ate dye and lied about it, bragging that blue tongues ran in her family. Mildred wasn't close to her father, but found comfort and solace at the rectory of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church of Ambless where she performed light housekeeping chores and posed as famous Greek statuary for the amusement of Father Dwayne and his toothless assistant, Toot.
Ibid is a hysterical celebration of America, literature and American literature -- not to mention deodorant, circus freaks, summer camps named Chaubunagungamaug, twelve-step programs and really bad poetry. Footnotes shouldn't be this fun, but in Dunn's hands they're sublime. | June 2004
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.