Eric Bogosian is a talented actor. Despite a peculiar sardonic stage and screen persona, his characterizations are invariably convincing and well rounded, containing humor, pathos and depth. Not surprisingly, the protagonist in Bogosian's latest novel displays many of the same characteristics as do his screen characters. "Perforated Heart" is the story of Richard Morris, an aging writer on the downhill side of a once successful career who practices cynicism as a fine art. He doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve for all to see: He keeps it inside a tent and charges admission. Fortunately, the entry fee is well worth it.
Like many of Bogosian's celluloid alter egos, Morris does not take life too seriously -- or to be more accurate, he doesn't take the lives of others seriously. His own? Well, just listen: "In the elevator I discovered myself in a mirror. I am in my mid-fifties, almost handsome, gray haired, bespectacled...Unlike my numerous uncles, I am neither overweight nor short. Like them I wear the mask of one who is both focused and bemused, benign and angry. A wry smile and a furrowed brow lend an enigmatic quality. Here I am, as the world sees me, as I see me. No matter what I do, I can't get past myself."
In keeping with his protagonist's egotism, Morris' story is told entirely as an alternating series of entries from two personal diaries -- one from the 70s when his career was just beginning and the other set in the present. This literary convention works extremely well. Switching back and forth between the two journals, Bogosian fills in the gaps in his main character's life. At the same time, the author institutes subtle differences in style between the two diaries to illustrate Morris' growth as a writer. The early journals are full of long descriptive sentences: "I bought a coffee in a paper cup emblazoned with an image of the Parthenon and the words 'We are happy to serve you' and walked about fifty blocks southward to this strange part of town where the streets are all cobblestoned, empty and dark." Contrast this with the short, punchy phrases of Morris' contemporary writing: "So it happened. I survived. A big chunk of still respiring, still pulsing organism."
Bogosian has an excellent feel for the natural rhythm of dialogue. One of his protagonist's tricks as a writer is to record and transcribe monologues and conversations: "Those eugenics guys sterilized tens of thousands down south. Legally. Poor people. White trash. Niggers. Jews. No one really knows how many. No one cares. Because in those days scientists thought you inherited poverty through your genes." This stuff is good enough that I found myself wondering if Bogosian himself carries a concealed tape recorder when he travels.
The most amazing thing about the book is that Bogosian is able to take a man who is basically a narcissistic dick and mold him into a character that somehow evokes empathy. Morris encounters many failures and setbacks throughout the book. Open heart surgery, (the literal part of "Perforated heart"), a failed marriage and several disastrous love affairs (the metaphoric aspect of the title), all combine to give the reader fodder for sympathy. However, the real rabbits Bogosian pulls out of his hat are the diaries themselves, which present an honest lens through which his character views his own many failings and setbacks. Morris may be a schmuck, but he's brutally honest.
One thing I found less than successful was the book's relentless stream of sex, drugs and obscenity -- at least one example of which pops up in virtually every diary entry. "October 10th 1976, Out with Jack until four last night. Tremendous hangover. My teeth hurt. Drinking gin with some tall blonde Dutch guy who had the most intense hashish ... Dagmara's friend Anita came by. She's more savvy than Dag... Huge breasts ... She also smokes non-stop. I'm curious to see what her nipples look like ... I investigated Dagmara's underwear drawer and found her panties and jerked off. It's like I'm falling in love with her because she won't sleep with me."
Richard Morris doesn't just get stoned; he smokes hash, snorts coke and washes handfuls of pills down with swigs of Jack Daniels. He doesn't just sprinkle in an "F" word here and there; he carpet-bombs you with them. Morris doesn't just fantasize about screwing every female within his peripheral vision; he actually does it -- at least in his diaries. At times Morris' excesses are so far over the top that he comes off a tad cartoonish, the literary equivalent of a perverse Bugs Bunny winking at the camera. It's almost seems as if Bogosian is worried, lest he be accused of taking his own writing too seriously. To paraphrase one of his screen characters: "This is just a novel. I know it. You know it. Your date knows it. Everybody knows."
These reservations aside, I found "Perforated Heart" to be a thoroughly enjoyable book. Not intense. Not profound maybe. But like Bogosian's acting, convincing and entertaining, with enough humor, pathos, and depth that it would make a fine addition to a summer reading list. That is, if you don't mind a few %$#*@ing swear words.