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Rocky Mountain NewsIf there's a lesson to be learned from Bill Fitzhugh's new comic novel, The Organ Grinders, it is "don't cut the author off in traffic." On the surface, it's a funny book that satirizes advances in biotechnology that threaten to disrupt human evolution. That is, unless they are beaten to the punch by greedy corporate executives bent on destroying the environment. But while the author makes fun of ineffectual activists and their apathetic public, most of the novel's characters seem the angriest when they're stuck in traffic.
The Organ Grinders is the story of Paul Symon, an environmentalist who has spent his whole life fighting a polluting corporate executive. He blames Jerry Landis, president of Xenotech, for his father's death in a bio-tech industrial accident. Meanwhile, Landis is suffering from a disease that causes him to age exponentially. He has charged his bio-tech company to raise baboons in order to ensure a supply of transplant organs so that he can live long enough for scientists to find a cure to his illness.
A parade of characters march through the book, each representing participants in the late-20th- century environmental morality play. There's the transplant procurement specialist who uses his degree in acting to convince grieving family members to donate organs. And an elderly woman who tells Paul, when he confronts her about using plastic grocery bags, that she doesn't care about the world her grandchildren will inherit. As in all good comic novels, the characters' lives intertwine in a satirical manner throughout the plot, culminating in an incredible scene at the baboon organ harvest in the backwoods of Mississippi that cannot be described without ruining the rest of the book.
Fitzhugh's humor prevents the story from becoming didactic. A good example is his description of a contentious meeting of a group of vegetarians, all arguing the merits of their particular diets. A brawl ensues, as a "rope-thin young man who was trying to stand up to make his point more forcefully," but who "didn't seem to have the strength," yells out: "Am I the only true vegan in the this room?"
Paul and his wife Georgette then observe "the official split between the lactovo-tolerant and the pure vegan factions of the Vegetarian Association of Central California." While not a laugh a minute, The Organ Grinders does clock in with a guffaw every 10. The author's willingness to make fun of people on both sides of the issue makes the book more interesting than if he had divided it solely into heroes and villains. Do you side with the corporate executive or the eco- terrorist who buries the exec in dirty diapers up to his neck in his own landfill?
The one constant theme of the book is the creeping effect of public apathy. People are so overwhelmed by the crushing weight of the world's environmental problems that they are too exhausted to object to the seemingly small acts of desecration, like watching someone throw a cigarette butt on the ground.
The cumulative effect of such pollution, however, only adds to a sense of hopelessness and continues the vicious cycle of apathy. Amid the hilarity, this seems to be the message of The Organ Grinders, second only to the admonition to avoid the author in traffic.