In his book A Year at the Movies, Kevin Murphy refers to his Mystery Science Theater 3000 co-star Michael J. Nelson as the funniest man alive. On the basis of Mike Nelson’s Death Rat! I must conclude that, if Nelson is not the funniest man alive, he is at least a viable contender for the title.
Death Rat! is a hilarious send-up of modern literary culture. The book centers on mild-mannered history author Pontius “Ponty” Feeb, who has penned such wordplay-happy titles as Old Von Steuben Had a Farm: The German-American Settlement of the Midwest and Where Did Amerigo: Vespucci and the New World. Fired from his job as a publisher of trade journals, Ponty has to resort to a rather undignified life, living with a gaggle of college boys (despite the fact that he’s near sixty) and flipping burgers at a medieval-themed fast food restaurant.
Having hit rock bottom, he writes a ludicrous sci-fi novel called Death Rat, about a giant rat terrorizing the small Minnesota town of Holey. To help ensure the book’s success, Ponty uses a young burger-flipper named Jack to front for him. However, Jack fails to read the book and from Ponty’s description thinks it’s a work of nonfiction. He sells the book as such, and then the two have to launch an elaborate coverup, facing such obstacles as a George Clinton-esque funk musician and a wildly jealous rival author.
Nelson keeps the plot moving so quickly that none of its quirks seem self-consciously quirky – even the most bizarre characters seem real. Especially likeable is the way that the citizens of Holey aren’t portrayed as simple-minded rubes, like small-town characters in most works of fiction. Yes, they are good wholesome small-town folk who hunt turkeys and collect ceramic cats, but they do know the value of a good bribe.
Nelson also has a good time satirizing some of his fellow Minnesotans. Gus Bromstad, the psychotic bestselling author driven even madder when Death Rat outsells his latest offering, is a very loose satire on famous Minnesota writer Garrison Keillor, and the crazy governor given to punching reporters and rappelling out of windows and helicopters seems is a mock-up of Jesse Ventura
But it’s the relationship between the wildly paranoid Ponty and the loosely good-natured Jack that’s at the book’s core. Both are convincing, wonderfully drawn characters. Ponty, obsessed with the idea that someone might be on to the Death Rat scheme, occasionally dons a fake mustache and goes by the alias Earl Topperson – a charade that is about as successful as it sounds. Jack, an actor whose only success has been in small avant-garde plays put on by a theater troupe called Bleeding Vein, is feverishly unintellectual, but proves himself to be a worthy ally when it comes time to cajole the citizens of Holey to help pretend that the Death Rat is real.
The result is a funny, smart, and even warm novel. One more like this, and I, too, may concede that Nelson is the funniest man alive.