Sandy Bloomgarten is a writer you either envy, pity, or outright hate. In theory, she's an excellent reporter, but often, to pay the bills, she resorts to working for gossip rags like The Enquirer. Who of us in a bind hasn't resorted to similar means? But when tabloid celebrity gossip takes over your professional ambitions and drives you to alcoholism, it may be time to reevaluate your work-life balance.
In an attempt to make ends meet after a bad divorce, Bloomgarten takes a freelance gig near her Tennessean hometown of Mesopotamia, where she's forced to briefly reconnect with the strange, confusing liberal Jewish family that adopted her from a Korean orphanage at birth. Her nearly-mixed-race heritage and her family's strained relationship history could have been teased out in a much more interesting way, but is instead only played up for its freak factor and used by Bloomgarten to demean herself through unnecessary use of slurs like "kook" (a portmanteau of "gook" and "kike") and offset her discomfort as the only "squinty-eyed Jewess" most people have ever encountered.
Along the way to finding a story worth reporting, one of Bloomgarten's sleuth companions ends up dead as they piece together the murder of several local Elvis impersonators. She ends up babysitting for a widow with seven children who sing various songs by The King as punishment. She has orgasmic sex with a Hunchback of Notre Dame-meets-Phantom of the Opera ogre who finds and saves her from being raped by a pack of local hoodlums. These are only a few of the slightly less than believable encounters the fill the first half of Mesopotamia. It only gets weirder from there.
Bloomgarten's legitimate problems—such as alcoholism, accompanying one-night stands with strangers, and other situations which call for an exercise in compromised, possibly poor judgment—are glossed over, which left me with an icky feeling. This is no doubt due in part to having encountered the destructive nature of alcoholism firsthand, though I was generally unsettled by the rampant drunk driving, possibly unprotected NSA sex, and pill-popping found in the book. Is it because I'm the straightedge monogamist type or because the novel, with a female protagonist, was authored by a man without an inherent sense of how a woman would act in these improbable situations? Do I simply misunderstand sexual liberation and flagrant drunkenness as gendered? All of these things are possible. I can often lose myself in fiction, but personal hang-ups aside, this was one novel that failed to sell me on the improbably destructive plot.
If you're going to be able to enjoy Mesopotamia for the hedonistic, celebrity-crazed cultural artifact that it is, you'll need to bone up on A-lister gossip from the past year and retain random Elvis trivia to make sense of the puns and wisecracks. Often, you'll feel like you're spying on some sort of Bizarro World skeptics convention with a few too many of the characters tossing around self-righteous anti-Bush, pro-global warming propaganda that the most devoted leftist thinker would find irritatingly cliche. If you'd like to finish the book without being tempted to hurl it across the room, you'll also want to cultivate a bit more sympathy for the protagonist than I did.