Thursday, April 14, 2005

Pleading Insanity: The Weeds of God by Robert W. Wood


I opened The Weeds of God by Robert W. Wood without a clue to what this book might be like. The insanely cryptic Online Review of Books quote on the back cover, "Weeds of God is a razor slice across the eye and a refreshing drink of subconscious suds," didn't help me much, either.

The story in Weeds, told in a series of vignettes, explores the dark mental corridors of the inmates of a mental asylum, and details the efforts of the psychotherapist who tries to illuminate them. In this asylum the staff, seen through Wood's eyes, often appear demented, while the inmates sometimes seem completely rational.

As I do when I come upon a new writer, I applied the Rule of 33. This novel is composed of a series of related, although free-standing, stories, and because each is as carefully crafted as the last, I was instantly captivated.
Four months ago, on Friday, Mr. Lessmore walked into the center of main street at 12:00 am. He was nude, and carried a grocery sack. He pulled six cantaloupes out of the sack, and arranged them in a large circle. He then proceeded to defecate in the middle of the circle of cantaloupes. After cleaning himself with a tie ripped from the neck of a bystander, he stood and said, "Well, that about does it."
We meet the receptionist who "has a battle going with a wad of chewing gum," as the author enters for the first time this building where "no one looks particularly insane." In short order we meet a number of characters, some in white coats and some "dressed in rainbows." Some talk sense, some babble nonsense—and there is no correlation whatsoever between these characteristics and the sanity of the speaker.

Where the teller of this story cycle is in sympathy with the subject of a story, he reveals to us the kernel of mental balance within the insane behavior. When the actions of a character are contrary to his own values, he makes us see the insanity in them. And no one, however exalted, is held immune from the scalpel of his prose.
Dr. Contritus is thirty-five years old and dying. The world is full of shits, and God has picked Dr. Contritus. God is very busy... Each night in my prayers I send unto God a listing of the shits I feel should be harvested in the very near future... I always include my name at the top of the list of substitutes because I am trying to be fair. I always give a false social security number, however, because my kind of fair just extends so far.
The names Woods assigns to his characters are low puns embedded like chocolate chips in the sweet dough of his tales. Dr. Argetto and Nurse Blithups contend with Mr. Lemme and Mr. Facade, Mr. Culswamp will not be released as long as New York City pays $1000 a day, Dr. Lambast lobbies Congressman Bundnut for funds for the asylum. Mr. Thanaten attempts suicide. Dr. Phustus debates Dr. Commradius. The bust of Julius Caesar and the gerbil confer quietly in the corner.

In the end, the relationships Woods makes clearest are those between the psychotherapist and his own mind, his own heart, his own questions and insanities and dreams. His stories are engrossing and moving and enlightening in turns, close to poetry in the terse focus of their descriptive power.

And you never notice until you've finished the book how far along that dark corridor you've come.

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