It’s not always clear to me why I pick certain books to read and review, and not others. In retrospect, I must have been hoping that Lo Mein (the novel by Robert Eringer) would be as tasty, as meaty and satisfying as lo mein (the Chinese wheat-noodle dish with stir-fried vegetables and meat). Possibly it was close to lunchtime, which has been known to affect my judgment. In fact, Lo Mein, the novel, is much more like that last soggy chunk of sweet-and-sour chicken, glistening with congealed fat and Chernobyl-red sauce, that looked so good when you were starving and now really just makes you want to throw up.
However, for the sake of you foolhardy souls who still want to know more about this sorry piece of writing, I’ll carry on. Willard Stukey is a failed artist who can’t seem to get a break in any of NYC’s snooty galleries. Upon his fiftieth rejection, Stukey swears to have his revenge on the art world by creating an entirely new sort of art - performance art, if you will, but very much against the will of the unwitting participants. Seeking a really big crowd to maximize his impact - and, fortuitously, seeing a chance to make a statement against lowbrow mass-audience trash - Stukey goes to Disney World and guns down the actors playing Mickey and Minnie Mouse, along with a hearty helping of innocent bystanders. Casually strolling off in the midst of the panicked crowd, Stukey makes his escape and goes into hiding, waiting to become famous at last.
The media goes nuts. The FBI goes nuts. Michael Eisner, the chairman of Disney, goes nuts. Livid over a public-relations debacle of this magnitude, Eisner hires Jeff Dalkin, an ex-FBI agent and Bruce Willis-lookalike with Tourette’s syndrome (ah, the comic possibilities), to tidy up the mess. It doesn’t take long to pin the killings on Stukey, who of course wants to be caught; but when tight-fisted Eisner cuts Dalkin out of his rightful share of the reward money, Dalkin starts sniffing around for more creative ways to supplement his income. Stukey starts making demands: he wants an exhibition of his work in MoMA, he wants a full review in the New York Times - or else Donald Duck gets it. Dalkin’s been stringing Stukey along about becoming his agent in order to extract information, but once Eisner fires him, Dalkin figures he might as well go with it and become Stukey’s agent for real - especially once the art world starts to flip over Stukey’s genius. Hilarious hijinks ensue, as you’d expect, and if you can stumble through a painful subplot about Dalkin’s Big Ethical Dilemma (wherein he reluctantly accepts a lucrative commission to track down a wife-beater’s runaway spouse), you’re home free.
The plot is patently ridiculous, but, unfortunately, not funny enough to justify the considerable suspension of disbelief it requires. In fact, it’s not funny at all. Dalkin’s Tourette’s is milked for all it’s worth: he has particular trouble saying “Eisner", turning it into a howl of “ay-yi-yi-yi,” and his rendition is described - every single time - as “he sang like a Mexican mariachi.” Along the way, Dalkin picks up various verbal tics from conversations he overhears, including the titular “Lo mein,” which serves no purpose besides baffling everyone who hears it. Similarly, the author refuses to let the Bruce Willis gag die; over and over, waitresses, cabbies, concierges, and servicepeople of every kind swoon and gasp and beg Dalkin for autographs. Whatever minimal humor can be wrenched from this tired gag is excruciatingly unfunny by its fortieth repetition, but that doesn’t stop Eringer. Similarly, the author seems to believe that no one who works in Asian restaurants can manage anything but halting, mangled pidgin English, and has some fun at their expense, too. Laugh! It’s funny!
I’m not familiar with Corinthian Books, but I can tell you that they need to invest in a spellcheck program. Typographical errors run rampant, even on the cover; the hit-and-miss editing only adds to the overall impression of a slipshod, half-hearted effort. Undoubtedly, Lo Mein is meant as a scathingly funny, razor-sharp indictment of media hype, the superficiality of the art world, and the soul-sucking greed that allows men to rationalize their most wicked deeds, but none of this comes through in the actual text. Instead, what you get is a cheap and greasy lunch combo: a steaming mound of ugly stereotypes and excruciatingly clumsy social commentary, with some ham-fisted attempts at funny-making on the side. If you’re hungry for a good read, Lo Mein is the last thing you want on your plate.