At its best, Tony Vigorito's "Just a Couple of Days" channels the entropy and nihilistic madness of Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle," while enthusiastically embracing the apocalypse with all the joie de vivre of Slim Pickens bronco-busting that A-bomb in "Dr. Strangelove."
Unfortunately, when compared to those classic stories of imbecilic warmongers and their assorted comedies of error, Vigorito's story falls short of reaching that same lofty pinnacle. Of course, there's no shame in being a notch or two beneath Vonnegut and Stanley Kubrick. But when there's already such a massive footprint in the ground that Vigorito is trying to tread, you just can't help but draw the comparison, and "Just a Couple of Days" suffers from it.
The story is narrated by Dr. Flake Fountain, a geneticist at an Ohio University. Fountain, we learn, is a somewhat of a sad sack wallflower, but he is fascinated with his friends Blip and Sophia Korterly, a hippy-dippy Zen couple who suck down wheat grass smoothies, practice a sort of Zen, Earth-mother sort of spirituality and name their daughter Dandelion.
In the mildly anarchic culture-jamming spirit that motivates a gray-haired, all-organic academic, Blip paints a simple message on a local overpass, spray painting the ominous message: "Uh-oh." To Blip's delight, an anonymous pen pal responds, painting "When?" beneath his message. Blip replies, "Just a couple of days."
The whole town starts theorizing about the meaning of this exchange, wondering exactly what is going to happen in "just a couple of days." As it turns out, while Blip's message itself has no real meaning other than to try to get people thinking about what might be coming down the pike, in just a couple of days, something very big will happen. Blip will be one of several people to be infected by a top-secret experimental military weapon -- a virus that destroys its victims' "symbolic capacity."
As Gen. Veechy Killjoy, the mad mastermind behind Operation Small Change (consider him the equivalent of George C. Scott's "General Buck Turgidson"), tells Fountain, the virus destroys a human's ability to communicate.
"What our virus, we've called it 'The Pied Piper'," he chuckled, "what the Pied Piper virus does it take away a person's ability to talk. It's not like laryngitis, where a person can still write and understand what others say. When a person is infected with the Pied Piper virus, their entire symbolic capacity is eliminated on the cognitive level."
In theory, the Pied Piper could stop opposing armies dead in their tracks without damaging any expensive structures and without bloodshed. Only problem is, the virus turns its victims into cackling lunatics, and no one bothered to come up with a cure.
Vigorito tells an engrossing, fast-paced story that is a joy to read -- wonderfully subversive and thought-provoking. What would humanity be without communication, government or currency, and is that really such a bad thing?
But there are some things that just don't add up. Without giving away too much, we are left wondering how Fountain's memoirs survived, and who his audience might be. It also seems a tad bit incongruous that Vigorito revels in nimble twists of the tongue, poetic turns of phrase, and vivid metaphors in a book that ultimately revels in the death of language itself. In fact, at times, Vigorito's use -- or perhaps I should say his narrator's use -- of flowery language goes way over the top, and seems completely out of character for the nebbish geneticist he establishes early on.
Maybe the absence of language and symbols would result in the sort of utopia John Lennon sang about in "Imagine." But it's a hard argument to buy, especially after reading 400 pages worth of the sort of poetic language and delicious satire that showcases everything that's good about language in the first place.
Dan Murphy is a Buffalo freelance writer.
Just a Couple of Days
By Tony Vigorito
Harvest, 400 pages, $14 paper