It has been a while since an association with a book has so depressed me - depressed me not because it is poorly written or a real “downer,” but rather because it has not been on the bestseller lists and the author is not better known. The good news is that Kevin Shay is a genius and hopefully someone will sit up and take notice before he gets too depressed. I did some Internet research and found that, while this is his first novel, he’s also a former online editor for McSweeney’s. I also found that he’s not as well-known as he should be. Writers of his ilk rarely come along, and it’s a shame some major publishing house has not snapped up Shay’s next ten hypothetical novels.
The first thing that will jump out at you in The End as I Know It is the writing style: it’s simply fantastic. If you’re familiar with the works of Martin Amis (Money, Success, etc.), then you’ll see a similarity here. While Amis is world-famous, Shay does an even more bang-up job with the English language, twisting and turning it into virtual poetry. Think Fight Club meets Ginsberg meets DeLillo. There are hints of David Sedaris, Jackson McCrae, and even Chuck Palahniuk here, but with an unrelenting wit that never lets up. I kept waiting for the storyline and style to sag, but it never does.
As if the style alone were not enough to get this guy a prize, consider the story: He’s a puppeteer, reminding me strongly of the movie Being John Malkovich, though funnier, who performs for kids. This alone could suffice for a book, but Shay brings in his need to tell everyone about the impending doom of Y2K. Now, you might think this point moot since the events have come and gone without the hoopla that was predicted, but Shay’s visitation of the matter is perhaps even funnier now, especially since we’ve determined just how innocuous the end of the century was, at least for a while. It’s the looking back at how we acted that works. When I initially chose this book to review, my first thought was,” Who’s going to read this now that it’s over?” and this may be the reason for the novel not succeeding more sales-wise. So don’t be put off by the title.
I think what success this book has had, and hopefully will have in the future, is that, all you have to do is plug in another crisis (world hunger, nuclear bombs, Bird Flu, terrorist threats) and you’ll see what Y2K was like before we knew the outcome. Panic and fear-mongering are rampant for political and social reasons, and Shay holds a mirror up to our faces, makes us laugh, cry, and worry. This is as it should be.
But more about the plot. At one point, so taken is Randall Knight that he quits his puppeteer job and sets out, Johnny Appleseed-like, to let everyone know what’s what. There is a particularly amusing scene near the beginning of the book where Randall is preparing for yet another puppeteer performance for uninterested children, only to find that the maintenance person at the school has Googled him and found that his meager site mentions his fears for Y2K. Now, with a fellow comrade, Randall is emboldened and convinced of his calling, for the maintenance man seems even more zealous than Randall about the end of things as we know them.
There are plays on words here; the puppets names, for instance, and double-entendres galore. And lest you think Shay’s protagonist is one-dimensional, he has the good graces to have Randall criticize the others who take their ideas on Y2K too far for even his needs. There’s an underlying three-dimensionality to Randall Knight that brings to mind some of the great comic heroes, Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces being just one.
This may be Shay’s only book so far, but I sincerely hope that he continues to grace us with his wit and perspicacity for years to come.