Is the prospect “a touching and humorous novel from the author of The Exorcist a publicist’s dream or a publicist’s nightmare?” Either way, that’s how William Peter Blatty’s new novel Crazy has been pitched to readers. It comes as the third in his late-career burst of productivity that began nearly 40 years after the book that spawned two literary follow-ups and five films. The popularity of the Exorcist franchise having ensured that Blatty’s name will always carry an underworldly tinge of quasi-Catholic menace, it’s no wonder the man would want to exercise other novelistic muscles.
This isn’t without precedent: Blatty spent the early 1960s as a comic novelist and the late 1960s writing scripts, most famously the second Pink Panther film, for Blake Edwards. Yet nothing about Crazy indicates a continuation of that tradition. Though ostensibly a story told in modern times by the now 82-year-old protagonist Joey El Bueno, the novel is thoroughly of early 1940s New York City as experienced by a 13-year-old, which means schoolyard scuffles, bull sessions on the block, and delirious trips to Coney Island.
Blatty, too, grew up in that time and place. Having reached his own early eighties, he presumably draws on a very similar store of memories as Joey, who also grows up to be a screenwriter. Here we feel the deeply unpromising premonition of a reminiscence-heavy one-man show; once you’ve heard one cultural veteran remember the joys of shouting up at the high window of a school chum’s Brooklyn apartment building to come out and play stickball, you’ve heard them all. Blatty allows himself all this and more, but in this frame of urban idyll he makes a few strange choices.
Most of these have to do with Joey’s narrative voice, which reads, from a distance, like that of someone’s sharp but compulsively goofy granddad. He hails jokes and elbow-in-the rib asides onto his story, observing a waiter “picking at his wavy black mustache like he was feeling around for bits of chopped garlic that the chef had reported missing” and speculating that the discipline of one Catholic school nun “today might bring a lawsuit and find Sister Louise in an orange hood and jumpsuit doing the perp walk into some courthouse croaking loudly, ‘On the merry Day of Judgment all you ACLU scumbags will be sweating!’”
These, like most of the digressions in Joey’s jaunty rambling, don’t quite click, delivering the intent of humor but rarely the reality. If brevity is the soul of wit, some of these passages are effortlessly diagnosed. Only the shortest gags reveal Blatty’s skill as a humorist because only the shortest gags ring true. Rarely has anything taken me into the adolescent mentality than the line, “I was thinking thoughts. You know: Stuff.” The least successful jokes, or strings of jokes, include several bizarre extended passages about evolution, Clint Eastwood, and Satanic threats of “total catsup immersion,” all of which feel about as true to life as, well, The Exorcist.
That isn’t the two books’ only similarity. The plot repeatedly runs the young Joey into Jane Bent, a Pippi Longstocking-looking girl with unlimited wealth (she produces an astonishing five-dollar bill on their first encounter), a store of eerily specific knowledge about his life, and the ability to materialize at a different age every time they meet. In momentary breaks from her aggressive lightheartedness, she warns him that “the world’s a battleground,” that “we’re really in a scary war of darkness.” Despite breaking out his best adolescent interrogation skills, Joey can draw no confirmation of Jane’s existence from any of his friends. The supernatural seems afoot.
Given that Joey’s mother died in childbirth and that the rules of Crazy’s universe seem to permit the influence of the dead on the living, we can foresee what’s going on with Jane. But this isn’t a novel of plot. It’s a novel of tone, albeit often a groan-inducing one, and a novel of subjective history. The joys of a midcentury urban childhood, such as countless movie, radio show, and book titles — Gaslight, The Dead End Kids, Gunga Din, Captain Midnight, The Shadow — penetrate the fog of Joey’s patter. But Blatty goes a bit too far, mentioning P.G. Wodehouse twice and the anachronistic Kurt Vonnegut at least five times. Wodehouse and Vonnegut, two masters of the tonal story, carries entire books on voice alone. It’s not easy to benefit from the comparison.