Tuesday, April 14, 2009

'Wonderful World' by Javier Calvo: Pulp fiction with a European twist

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, April 12, 2009

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston. E-mail books@ dallasnews.com.

Spaniard Javier Calvo's first novel to be translated into English, Wonderful World, is a peculiar amalgam of crime caper, literary homage and Eurotrash sideshow.

It is December 2006, and the city of Barcelona is plastered with posters touting the arrival of the latest Stephen King novel, Wonderful World, "the story of a man that wakes up one day and discovers that everything around him has turned perfect ... His co-workers are friendly to him. His ex-wife, too ... .Wars end. Politicians turn smart."

Meanwhile, in the real world, antiques dealer Lucas Giraut is coping with the fallout from his father's death three months earlier. His affairs are as complicated as the cartonniers, antique desks filled with secret compartments, he collects.

Giraut's mother, Fanny, whose face has been rendered an immovable mask by a series of collagen injections and face-lifts, is challenging Giraut's mental competence in a bid for taking over the family's restoration business. He has enlisted a motley group to steal a quartet of Irish paintings his father had tried to acquire, landing him in jail. The thugs include: a gangster named Bocanegra (Black Mouth) who wears women's fur coats and runs a strip club called Dark Side of the Moon; a white Russian Rastafarian jewel thief; a thuggish giant who resembles the Thing from the Fantastic Four; and a sex addicted ex-cop.

All the while, he can only confide in his downstairs neighbor, a pre-pubescent girl named Valentina Parini, the self-proclaimed "Top European Expert on the work of Stephen King," who daydreams methods of creatively killing her schoolmates.

As Giraut journeys deeper into the underworld (and both Calvo's and the faux King novel progress), the book's strange mysteries begin to unravel. Why, for example, was Giraut's father so deathly afraid of Windows and why was he so obsessed with the band Pink Floyd? Whether this will matter to the reader depends entirely on how much you're willing to indulge Calvo's picturesque imagination. This is not a novel about deep emotions; rather, it is one intended to dazzle with its audacity. It is loaded with X-rated vice and entertains through exaggeration. (Think of a Pedro Almodóvar film.)

Despite the allusions to Stephen King, he isn't the model for the work. Calvo is taking his cues from American writers such as Jonathan Lethem – Calvo is married to his sister, who also translated this novel – and David Foster Wallace, whom Calvo has translated into Spanish. Fans of either of the aforementioned writers will best be able to appreciate this European riff on post-modern American pulp.

Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

Wonderful World

Javier Calvo

(HarperCollins, $27.99)

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