David Ohle, The Pisstown Chaos
Publisher: Soft Skull
2008, 192 pages, paperback, $13.95
the long-awaited third book in David Ohle’s Motorman series, The Pisstown Chaos is a welcome addition to his floridly gruesome triad. Beginning with Motorman in 1972, and The Age of Sinatra thirty years later, Ohle has garnered a cult following due to his pioneering in the realm of absurdity. His new offering is aptly delivered in a timely and politically appropriate manner.
This satirical representation of America focuses on the Balls family, a once upstanding line ultimately thrown into Reverend Herman Hooker’s people-shifting system: the reverend orders citizens to move homes and jobs, as well as mates, therefore commanding control over all aspects of their lives. As aleader of this world, the Reverend sets himself up as the wizard behind a curtain that separates him from the filthy destruction his regime has created. The resulting state of the nation is deemed The Chaos, a monstrous outcome of the marriage between the Reverend’s shifting system and a parasitic outbreak. Within this infectious situation, the Reverend’s rules change to suit his personal needs, as well as the illness that his negligence has created. Once normal citizens have now been converted into stinkers, and as their stink worsens, so does the general condition of humanity. The Balls family, like everyone else, assimilates to these atrocities with the ease of survivors:
Mildred [Balls] watched a nighthawk streak across the face of the moon, dipping and turning in pursuit of mayflies. “It’s a beautiful night. My blisters don’t itch anymore, and I love the way the moonlight dances over the trailer roofs. […] Resisting it wasn’t worth the trouble.”
It is the ultimate power of fiction to trick the reader into accepting fantasy as truth in order to convey an overall theme–in this case, the Balls family’s survival through welcoming great pain as normalcy. Assimilation is often an underestimated power, and Ohle reminds readers of the enormity of perversion that humans are capable of accommodating. He accomplishes this by fusing allegorical symbols with the fantastic, and outwardly soiling his environment with inward filthiness. Instead of spreading icing on a mudpie, he smears it with the same mud it’s baked from, successfully displaying the dirt of America’s political system that is usually swept under the carpet.
Not one to shy away from the grotesque and repellant, Ohle mirrors a real Kansas myth with a scene in which a member of the Balls family falls into a latrine. This is directly related to a nonfiction piece by Ohle (“The Mortified Man” in The Missouri Review 13.3 Spring 1991), which was also made into a short film. The new rendition illustrates the strength of his style in bringing to life a wonderfully vivid nightmare:
The next thing I knew, I was in the hole. Head first. Straight to the bottom. […] When I stood up I shook the waste off and wiped it away from my eyes and I was glad there was a bottom to stop me and that I was still alive, that I hadn’t drowned in the waste. […] That’s when I got sick and vomited the first time. […] The waste was thick at the bottom and the top was liquid, the top foot or so. […] But there wasn’t anything more to do. […] If I had fallen asleep I might have drowned. What’s odd is, I got sick a couple more times and the stink subsided. All I could smell was my vomit.”
Within the confines of political satire, this scene depicts a human failure to separate true perverseness from everyday iniquity, and the overall failure to reject them both outright.
Should America become a kinder, more pleasantly fragrant country, Ohle may find it difficult to produce another work like The Pisstown Chaos, and it has been a mixed blessing for his devout following that society and politics have seen recent setbacks. Therefore, it is with half-hearted reservation that his readers send out prayers for change.