Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World – Donald Antrim

4 out of 5

You can get away with quite a bit when you’re a good writer. You can get away with even more when you apply those skills to a hilarious, heavy, pitch black, terrifying, strange and yet familiar story.

For example, wielder of such supreme talent Donald Antrim can, for his first novel, drop 185 unbroken pages of zero chapter or proper scene breaks; he can string together a comedy that includes, smuggled in, the kind of material that would’ve gotten a book burned or a movie NR’d and shelved, even in modern times. Every time I sit down to reread an Antrim book – which I have, a few times – I flip through those chapterless pages and sigh, unable to settle on an exact memory from the story to entice me further, beyond the recollection that I thoroughly enjoyed the read, in different ways, each time. And indeed, once you start reading about the skewed suburbia in which our narrator lives, where the recent, er, communal murder of the school principal has kicked off an attitude shift in the neighborhood, with everyone fortifying and protecting their homes with mines and moats and pits, while Mr. Robinson – that narrator – plans how to get in good with moms and dads so that he can reopen the school, elected as the new principal… Well, yes, it is as bizarre as it sounds, but it’s delivered with this raucously relatable, observant patter, normalizing it all, and putting you right in the mix, page after page, wanting to find out more about this strange new world, and half-understanding, half-alarmed at Pete Robinson’s logical but twisted thought processes.

Antrim is in control for every sentence, even when they don’t quite make sense.

That’s the sole rub, alongside the lack of chapters. While the latter seems perhaps like a surface affectation, it does prevent the text from having any ingrained rises or falls; it’s one long narrative building to an unbelievable conclusion. You can and will easily read long stretches of that, thanks to that unbrokenness and how immersive it is, but it also prevents the book from having a direct hook to bring you back for those times you do set it down, hence my never remembering much except the general beats. And as part of keeping things rolling, it does feel like there are some topical gambits that are a little off, that are just intended to add to the strangeness, or perhaps to underline Pete’s inherent uncaring nature; they do that, but at the sacrifice of keeping you totally in the moment.

However, on my several trips through this book, I keep relating to it in new ways; it is timeless in its human-ness, and its tweaked world allows it to be timeless in setting as well. And I can never quite believe how brutal it is, beneath the veneer of jocularity.

Other, less-skilled authors would not be able to keep us reading through such a story, and told without parsed out cliffhangers; Antrim not only has the ability to make the mundane sound marvelous, but he wields that skills to tell an incredibly unique, and fascinating tale in the process.