"A mixtape for the apocalypse": This is "Holy Water's" narrator characterizing the imaginary playlist he would create for the catastrophe he believes his life to be, and the phrase could apply to this contemporary satire set in New York and in Galado, an imaginary Himalayan kingdom.
More accurately, the smart but unsubtle "Holy Water" might be analogized to the 18th century satirical pamphlets of Jonathan Swift, by whom author James Othmer says he was "partially inspired" to create his mythical mountain country, based on the mythical Lagado of "Gulliver's Travels." (Nevertheless, while the book's targets are Swiftian, there is a "Kingdom of Galado" Twitter account, thanks to its author, sending Tweets such as May 3's "While in Galado, be sure to visit USAVille, our temporarily abandoned community of the future.")
As "Dog-Whisperer" Cesar Millan says, humans are the only species that will follow an unstable pack leader. That's the tip of the iceberg of our unique ability to misunderstand and mistreat each other and everything around us. Given the geological inevitability of the species' ham-handedness, the fact that Othmer plows familiar satirical territory is understandable -- but "Holy Water's" harvest is more than cultural ephemera, even though its protagonist is a marketing executive and modern movies and books are almost as lousy with admen as with vampires.
Othmer is a former executive creative director at the iconic advertising giant Young and Rubicam, and he slides over the ironies and absurdities of 21st century life as confidently and fluidly as Shaun White on the half pipe. "Holy Water" features 32-year-old New Yorker Henry Tuhoe, whose advertising career can be summarized as follows:
Four years ago they transferred him from Oral Care to Non-headache-related Pain Relief. Three years ago they transferred him from Pain Relief to Laxatives. Two years ago he was fast-tracked to Silicon-based Sprays and Coatings and was making quite a name for himself, but when lawsuits not of his making led to the rightsizing of his division (because discontinuing it would send the wrong signal to class-action lawyers), they transferred him to Armpits.
At a focus group for a new deodorant, Henry is told by the glib corporate gamesman-survivor Giffler, his direct supervisor, that Armpits is being "right-sized." Or as Henry puts it, "redundafired, gangBangalored."
Henry debates his post-right-sizing options: One is a transfer, to set up a call center in an unnamed foreign country for which Giffler advises him to "get your malaria, your bird, your swine flu shot. Your Ebola booster," although Henry hates change and travel and germs, in addition to his job. Option 2 is breaching his contract, and "Luther here from Security is giving you six minutes to clean your sorry personals out of your desk and get your a-- out of the building," minus any parachute, golden or not.
Henry's supporting cast includes such characters as his administrative colleague Meredith, aka "LEEEEVA EEEENORMOUS " and her "46EEEE TWINS," a moonlighting soft-core Web porn star and entrepreneur; and his Percocet-addicted personal trainer who is a frustrated YouTube filmmaker.
Henry deals with his life by dodging, hiding, faking and playing dead. However, Henry's vasectomy is his back story's symbolic center. After a long period of trying, Henry's wife, Rachel, becomes pregnant, but loses the baby and sinks into a tailspin exacerbated by Henry's passivity and increasing distance from her and from his own life. She demands that he get a vasectomy.
The novel's early chapters document the steps along the way and the aftermath of the snipping, but Othmer offers a nice surprise: Henry lied about getting the surgery because he didn't have the cojones to share his sadness and uneasiness about the operation and their life together with Rachel.
Offered his options by Giffler, Henry glumly chooses Galado -- a tiny, impoverished South Asian monarchy, despotically ruled by a short, steroid-addled, weight-lifting prince (who, like Henry, is an alumnus of Boston's Northeastern University and who addresses Henry as "Yo-Town"). The prince wants to push his country into at least the 20th century using the power of smokestack industries, corporate consumer culture and big box stores. To do this, the prince supplicatingly courts Western companies and wields ruthless authoritarianism against an insurgent movement intent on preserving Galado's millennia-old traditional culture and saving its environment.
Rachel discovers his big lie and kicks Henry out, at the same time that he's choosing Galado. He arrives there in a full-blown funk, with a mission: the creation of a call center to service customers of Happy Mountain Springs, a Vermont-based "green" bottled water enterprise. This, however, is a story with heart beyond ironic observation. Once in the country, Henry sees the repression and poverty, and the pollution and lack of potable water -- and of course the obvious ironies get full acknowledgment as he arrives to train staff for his American bottled water call center (which he finds has no phones or computers).
He also begins to fall for his Galadian second-in-command Maya. Energized to address his rudderless fecklessness by this abused country, he forms a plan to wake himself up, do something beyond venal self-interest, help Galado -- and, woo Maya.
The book ends where it began in a prologue -- with Henry in the middle of a violent coup, Happy Mountain Springs no longer in business, and Maya split from him because of a lie he told her. But he is awakened (Buddha comes from Sanskrit bodhi, which means "awakened one") and, with six months of severance pay, he awaits deportation at the Galadian airport, to an unknown new life.
Othmer includes in his acknowledgments "thanks to the many people at charitable organizations working around the world to provide clean water to everyone, and who need our continued support. The best satire springs not from contempt but from idealism, and "Holy Water's" heart is finally an awakened one.
Ed Taylor is a Buffalo writer, teacher and self-described "literary activist."
By James Othmer
289 pages, $26.95