FEBRUARY 26, 2019
JOSEPH SCAPELLATO IS an author at war with himself. Sometimes he is an absurdist imitative of master fabulators Robert Coover and Donald Barthelme. Sometimes he is a menacing, melancholy realist grippingly describing turbulent young manhood. Can the two Scapellatos coexist in the same work?
In the course of his debut, the 2017 story collection Big Lonesome, Scapellato the Absurdist evolves into Scapellato the Realist. Early on, the book features contorted, grotesque figures such as a 10-foot cowboy-horse hybrid, a sort of Western centaur, who meets characters who are generic types: “willful farm girl,” “young railroad baron,” “resentful transcendentalist poet.” A “white-hat cowboy” illustrates the shaky nature of heroism. An earthy “cow girl” born of a cow triggers confusion and elation among townsfolk. These are interesting exercises in archetype and imagination.
Then, as the stories progress, we increasingly encounter stretches of realism, although it sometimes remains in service to whimsical conceits. A rattler’s bite disrupts the free and easy hike of two grad students in “Snake Canyon.” In “Dead Dogs,” a forlorn fellow repeatedly brings his absent fiancée’s dog to a bar. Everyone there wants to tell him poignant, weird, or disgusting stories about their deceased pooches, and he buys them drinks in return. The narrator of “Company” reaches out to a disturbed sibling who is quickly unraveling during a walk in the Windy City. We glimpse in these stretches a rich, naturalistic imagination still a bit hesitant to come forward.
In his first novel, The Made-Up Man, Scapellato the Absurdist and Scapellato the Realist have a different relationship: instead of the former handing off to the latter, the Absurdist stalks the Realist throughout. Stanley, Scapellato’s sad, unmoored Chicago protagonist, has an Uncle Lech who is a rich, devious, Polish-born performance artist. As he haunts and harangues Stanley, Lech becomes the manifestation of Scapellato’s unrelenting Absurdist proclivities.
Stanley is a dropout from an archeological-anthropology graduate program who’s working construction jobs off and on. He and his fiancée, a smart, beautiful, winsome actress referred to only as T, are taking a break. It’s clear, though, that for her it’s very likely and sensibly a permanent break from Stanley’s fears of personal and professional commitment.
At loose ends, Stanley accepts a fat check from Lech to apartment-sit a property in Prague. Stanley does so in part because T will be there performing in a play and he vaguely hopes to reach some sort of resolution with her. He knows full well that the assignment is pretext for Lech to screw around with him body, mind, and soul, but he steels himself to ignore his uncle’s provocations.
Easier said than done. Lech is an effective offstage demon. He directs a small cast of roving maniacs for hire with shifting costumes, makeup, and genders to mess with Stanley’s belongings and break into his cyberlife. They storm his memories, regrets, loves, friendships, fears, and dysfunctional family history. They stir up his sense of futility and aimlessness. They scratch awake, with help from his chronic heavy drinking, his slumbering impulses toward anger and violence.
Stanley’s affliction is amplified by the sense that his family and friends, including T and her smarmy, cosmopolitan friend Manny, who stays with Stanley in Prague, are complicit in his increasingly maddening, degrading situation. Is this plausible or paranoid? Well, we have learned that Lech’s artistic instincts are at best perverse and at worst criminal.
Stanley’s beloved Aunt Abbey is an artist herself and a mentor to Stanley in his close-knit Polish-American family. The intellectual liberation she sees in Lech, whatever his dark side, is akin to the inspirational glow Stanley seems to seek in his relationship with T and elsewhere. Performance art provides a parallel to and metaphor for the performativity of identity, particularly as it pertains to Stanley’s efforts to figure out who he is in his relationship with T and what they could be together.
Lech’s performance-art hijinks bring a colorful craziness to the Chicago parts of the novel. Scapellato provides richly detailed accounts of Lech’s projects, which include a mock-legislative session in Lech and Abbey’s living room. Lech has turned the temperature up to hot-yoga levels, and the legislators gulp water until they systematically pee in their trousers and dresses. The incident, a pungent commentary on American democracy, is documented for later exhibition.
When Stanley gets to Prague, however, the performance art, so far an intriguingly torqued element of plot and characterization, is twisted too far. Lech as a mad artist in Chicago is just sick enough to feel true. Lech as a trans-oceanic Mephistopheles feels forced, an excuse to throw Kafkaesque machinations into play in the town associated with them.
The artifice is, of course, intentional, the authorial self-consciousness part of a meta-performance. The publisher casts The Made-Up Man as “a hilarious examination of art’s role in self-knowledge, a sinister send-up of self-deception,” and Scapellato underlines the pretense with numerous, often ponderous movie-scene-type chapter headings such as “Stanley Day-Trips to the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora” and “Stanley Recalls How T Planned His Surprise Birthday Party.”
But why does Scapellato distance us from the vivid characters he has worked so conscientiously to create? Did the author feel too vulnerably close to them? Maybe Scapellato the Realist worried that his characters were too workaday to dazzle in a competitive literary landscape and called in Scapellato the Absurdist to jazz things up. If so, that’s too bad, because in doing so the author sabotages himself.
The novel’s Lech aspect is bold but unsatisfying because the details of Stanley’s personal history are far more credible and compelling than the mayhem brought by the cruel uncle. The depictions of the other members of Stanley’s family are grounded and vibrant: the love-hate relationship between his tough-but-tender dad and temperamental mom, his brother’s quiet encouragement on dark days, the brusque paternal grandma from the old country. Stanley’s student life — the dreary, disappointing field work at a Midwestern excavation site; an ill-considered, booze-fueled pass at his faculty mentor — also feels palpable. And there are enough delicious mentions of Polish dumplings and sausages to make a hungry reader’s stomach growl.
Scapellato’s minimalist prose unspools in a hypnotic staccato that carries an impressive freight of mood and information. Here, for instance, Stanley recalls a friend confiding in him:
The summer after my first year of college I met up with Torrentelli at the Art Institute. As we walked through the at-the-time-brand-new Modern Wing he told me that he’d be transitioning to a woman — I’d had no idea — the therapy and the hormones and the surgeries, everything, he’d change his name from Antonio to Serenity. We sat on a bench by his favorite Dubuffet. I was the first person he’d told other than his nonna. I didn’t ask why, but he said, as if I had: “You’re not judgmental.”
Scapellato can also strike a refreshingly earnest, romantic tone, as he does when Stanley recalls his time with T. Here, Stanley remembers their first date: “She was tall and at ease and direct, playful but grounded. Her voice radiated ability — a power and a range that the moment didn’t require — all of which she kept in check with practiced self-control. It was like being in the presence of an off-duty superhero.”
Let us consider the possibility that, at its heart, The Made-Up Man was born not a literary black comedy but a romantic tragedy. Early in the novel, Stanley’s identity is ever so proximate: T, and love, are the keys he fumbles in trying to unlock it.
The Made-Up Man fumbles its identity in a similar way, by looking too far outside what feels like its true self. A bittersweet novel about a beer-swigging, volatile, heartsick late-twentysomething in limbo among workaday, academic, and bohemian worlds — would that be too cliché? Too pedestrian? Too similar to a hundred other lad-lit novels? Not in hands as capable and original as Scapellato’s. Not with his feel for the tense moment and the quirky detail. It needed no postmodern razzmatazz.
Whatever the topics of his future novels, here’s hoping Scapellato the Realist gives his workshop-redolent Absurdist doppelgänger the slip and trusts his keen eye and confident heart to tell the unadorned stories he needs to tell.