“Thoroughly entertaining, with an offbeat sense of humor . . . There’s a solid mystery here, underneath the goofiness” (Booklist).
Things have not been going well for journalist Sandy Bloomgarten. Her job went down the drain and her marriage quickly followed. After a lengthy bender, she awakens one morning to the stark realization that she is flat broke. Nonetheless, she’s still a crack reporter, and when a tabloid offers her a freelance assignment in Memphis—just a stone’s throw from her childhood home in Mesopotamia, Tennessee—she takes it.
Though sent there for one story, she winds up tracking down another: someone is killing Elvis impersonators who perform at the annual Sing-the-King festival. The few available clues lead her to several unlikely characters: a cheating local minister constantly on the make, a strange band of misfits who only cover Elvis tunes, and a small-town private eye who blew himself up along with his crystal meth lab. As Sandy’s investigation closes, she realizes that she is sitting on what could be the story of the century. The only problem is she can never reveal what she has found . . .
“The immortal shadow of Elvis Presley gyrates wildly through this satiric exploration of America’s fascination with tabloid journalism.” —Publishers Weekly
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... those were all the suicides that I could remember, all sad males (as I envisioned in tabloid headlines — an occupational hazard of working in this business). Women tend to be more passive in their self-annihilation. Accidental overdoses gradually slowing down their broken little hearts. Repeatedly peeking into ovens, à la Sylvia Plath, where the gas delicately overwhelms the oxygen and their last thoughts are regretting not using a better oven cleaner. Stressful jobs, loveless marriages, bad food — most people kill themselves slowly every day.
When I got fired from my marriage and divorced from my job, I found myself getting drunk and passing out too early. Then I'd wake up around two in the morning with only the unbearable emptiness of my miserable failure to keep me company. That was when I started with the sleeping pills.
None of this had anything to do with the seemingly happy, successful life of one Thucydides Scrubbs. His comely young wife Missy was probably too dumb to kill herself. At thirty-eight years old the African American tax attorney probably slept as soundly as the dead. At least he slept well until that fateful day in July 2005 when he returned to his posh two-million-dollar estate outside of Memphis, Tennessee, to find his allegedly pregnant, white teenage bride, Missy Scrubbs, missing. Four days after her disappearance, her mother notified the police. When they asked Thucydides why he didn't call them, he replied that he simply thought she was visiting some friends upstate. Apparently she was from some podunk town between Memphis and Nashville, and this was where I started paying attention as I was raised in that very same area.
When the police examined Thucydides's bank records, they discovered that a million dollars had been withdrawn from his account a few days before she vanished. He had no explanation and was an automatic suspect.
When they learned from the neighbors that Thucydides and his wife had been fighting on a regular basis, the police considered he might have used that money to hire a hit man. But a murder didn't cost nearly that much. Some hypothesized that it might be a kidnapping. If that was the case, then Thucydides had probably been warned that if he involved the police, little Missy would be executed.
They interrogated Scrubbs at length. First alone, then with his nerdy counsel. When a local reporter broke the story that Scrubbs had been cheating on Missy with an even hotter, dumber blonde who worked on Beale Street, the gossip hit a fever pitch.
The titillating detail that tipped the story into the circus tent of tabloid land was something Missy's middle-trash mother had done ten years earlier. She had entered little Missy into every children's beauty pageant from Texarkana, Texas, to Biloxi, Mississippi. As fate would have it, she looked uncannily like Jon-Benét Ramsey. That, along with the fact that Scrubbs looked vaguely like a short, stocky O.J. Simpson, didn't help. Aspects of these two highly publicized cases with poorly resolved endings were natural fodder for the always hungry 'bloids.
Within a matter of weeks, as the case cauliflowered into this year's most sensational crime investigation, a quiet suburb in Memphis became the newest journalistic Mecca. People weren't sure whether this was a case of a runaway bride, or another Laci Peterson story, or, best of all, an old-fashioned kidnapping. It all came down to one question: where the hell was Missy Scrubbs?
Ninety-nine percent of my supermarket stories dealt with high-profile hookups of Tomkat, Bennifer (as in J-Lo), Bennifer II (as in Garner), and Brangelina — moronic celebrity romances. Eventually they all turned into marri-vorces. Last year I had reason to suspect my husband was cheating on me, but I pretended not to know. Soon he would only show up for a change of clothes. I tried to get out of the house on tabloid assignments, but before long I had taken to drinking on the job and was given a pink slip. Since my husband actually owned our classic eight apartment at the Ansonia — and I didn't want a divorce lawyer telling me to move — I took the initiative, locating a barely affordable studio in Hell's Kitchen. And there I slept; spring turned into summer ... By early August I was deep in debt, and unless I wanted to continue my hibernation in some ATM bank card cave, I had to get out of bed.
One day shortly after the move, when my answering machine clicked on, I groggily heard the faint voice of A. Paul O'Hurly, my soon-to-be-ex-husband, asking how I was. I ignored it. Some time later, I was awoken by another click of some reporter I knew in Washington quickly saying that she wished she could help with my pet project, an article about the Homeland Security reorganization. She said if I wanted to write it for some distant blog she knew ... blah ... blah ... blah ... I was holding out for print. I retreated deeper into the black sludge of sleep. It took a third louder, longer phone message to batter through the three tablets of Ambien and two Valium I had taken ten hours earlier.
"Miss Bloomgarten, this is Jericho Riggs, editor of the Rocket. You were recommended by Mr. Benoit to cover the Thucydides Scrubbs saga. He said you know the area and the reporter who I hired has turned up AWOL."
I snatched up the phone to learn that some naïve young editor was accidentally giving me a small break. The National Enquirer, the Star, Weekly World News — after burning my bridges at each of those fine institutions, I thought I was done with tabloid news (or vice versa). Now, thanks to my old friend Gustavo Benoit, I was being offered a freelance gig with a kill fee.
For me this job could potentially kill three annoying birds with one small stone: Aside from its therapeutic effects on my slowly smothering depression, the job could also earn me some desperately needed cash. More importantly, though, it would put me near to my deservedly neglected mama from Mesopotamia, Tennessee. I was going to drive from one land between the rivers to another in hope of borrowing yet more money.
I cleared my throat so that Jerry Riggs wouldn't sense I was severely hungover and had been sleeping for ten hours, and said, "Great."
"They just indicted Scrubbs, so I need you to go down there and dredge up anything related to the case." He wanted a small but steady news feed so he could put large colorful photos over them and sensational headlines above that. Riggs said that Gustavo was already down there if I needed help, and that he was expecting my first clump of words by tomorrow. Click.
I was once a real reporter. Even though I was no longer on any masthead — perhaps out of habit — I was still pushing and checking in on stories that I felt needed to be out there.
Last December, Gustavo Benoit invited me to a Washington "insider Christmas party" where I quickly got waylaid by some old bore named Silas who confused my ear with a spittoon. As he jabbered on and on, I searched for an escape route, but even Gustavo, who had brought me there, had vanished.
Though Silas's speech was slurred and too filled with facts and figures to be very engrossing, I slowly realized that the man was actually sitting on an important story. He had been prematurely retired from FEMA where he had worked for years as a meteorologist. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had just been absorbed into the growing swamp of the "Homeless Insecurity Department."
"Problem is, it's not nearly as effective now, and this is a really bad time to be ineffective," Silas explained.
"How exactly is it ineffective?"
He casually described how the agency had been scaled down. Time-tested protocols had been scrapped, making responsibility far fuzzier and the chain of command very murky. More specifically, budget, staff, everything had been dramatically reduced.
"And it's a really bad time to do this because we're heading into severe hurricane activity, not to mention the fact that this is a very different world."
"Biologically," Silas said. "There's a recent theory that this global warming wave is incubating countless dormant bacteria and viruses, allowing them to jump from various animals to human hosts. And I'm not just talking about some bird flu."
On and on he went, detailing how we currently had a perfect mating of mediocre politics with an abusive mother nature.CHAPTER 2
When I finally woke up from my Hell's Kitchen hell five hours later, I realized that I was supposed to be in Memphis, Tennessee, this very same day.
Too achy to reach the top shelf of my undusted closet for my tasteful toting luggage, I tossed the same unlaundered pile of clothes from my last assignment — a celebrity wedding stakeout six months ago — into two shopping bags. I stumbled downstairs and headed west to my river-adjacent car garage. It was only after my car rolled out of the Holland Tunnel like a tired torpedo that I began to feel myself emerging from my stupor.
I had been raised in a small town an hour and half northeast of Memphis and ran away at a young age. Though I eventually reconciled with Rodmilla, the annoying woman who had adopted me from a Korean orphanage, I managed to keep her at arm's length. I had paid her final installments on a mortgage she had taken out to help raise her biological family, but she and my debts were both moving up in years. She and her husband owned a huge house next to a defunct old mill situated behind one of the two narrow rivers that defined the town (Mesopotamia literally means land between the rivers). Soon after I had been adopted, she gave birth to two healthy twin girls. Shortly afterward her husband dropped dead, but she was one of those "crisis in Chinese means opportunity" types. Instead of moving back in with her parents, she mortgaged the house and converted the empty mill into a general store — the Ziggurat. (Since the locals were unaware that she was making a play on the original Mesopotamia, everyone soon called it ZigRat's.) She hired the local Boo Radley guy, a Vietnam vet named Pete, to run the place and within three months was making a little dough.
The store's steady success allowed her to start a local freebie newspaper, the Mesopotamian Cuneiform, which my two sisters and I wrote for when we were growing up. That little twelve-page rag got me infected with the journalistic bug while I was still in my teens. I learned more about writing, editing, and general production during those postpubescent days than in all of journalism school.
Unfortunately, the last time I had spoken to Rodmilla, a few months ago, it sounded like she was losing it. The sharp old coot that used to criticize my every move had grown noticeably dull. Only with the help of Pete was she still able to keep the store going.
Twelve hours and hundreds of miles later, having blasted through eight big bags of Doritos, several gallons of water, and all of my CDs twice, I washed up in that reportorial flood zone of Memphis. Over the past few unemployed months, in the wake of my chat with Silas, the retired meteorologist, I had become a one-woman lobbyist, trying to attract some big-name reporter or magazine to follow up on the story of the new FEMA being ill-prepared. After pitching it to a couple dozen reporters and editors I knew, I had only succeeded in becoming a pariah.
As I gathered with the other reporters covering the Scrubbs case, I learned that our just-indicted target, Thucydides, had not been seen for over a week. Rumor was he had traveled to Europe just before the D.A. announced he was going before the grand jury and the suspected wife killer wouldn't be back for another week or so.
From across the magnolia-lined thoroughfare, behind a forgotten Confederate solider statue, under the swaying and dappled shadows of redundant maple leaves, in his dirty white seersucker suit and clownish panama hat, leaning against a rented white compact, was the gentleman alcoholic and friend extraordinaire, Gustavo Benoit. If Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre ever shared a quadroon mistress, Gustavo might well have been the result.
When I crossed the street and joined him, he put a Styrofoam cup in my hand and before I could pretend that I was on the wagon, he poured some tempting single malt.
"It's Lara Croft, tomb raider, in our sleepy little Bayou-burg," he said in a retractable Southern drawl.
"If you're expecting me to thank you for getting me this awful job, forget it," I replied, gulping down the whiskey so as to quickly get to that always better second cup.
"Actually, you could compensate me by joining me for a drink at one of the local boy bars." He flung his hat into his car.
Gay Gustavo would always pay my tab at such pubs, where he used me to entice cute young men who he would attempt to intoxicate and seduce. But that was when Clinton was president and we still thought of ourselves as old youths. Despite our obvious decline — measured by the intake of liquid ounces — Gustavo was still as sharp as a rusty tack.
"I'm too broke to have fun," I said, finishing the Scotch, "so unless you can loan me a grand I'm going to have to pay a visit to the ruins in Mesopotamia."
"Sorry," he answered, impoverished.
As the expensive Scotch started to do its magic, I opened the back door of his car for a place to sit. Out fell a pair of battery-operated devil horns. His entire backseat was covered with odd party favors: hook-on rabbit ears,a shotgun that unfolded into an umbrella, a strap-on parrot beak,a Groucho Marx eyeglasses-nose-mustache, and under a George W. Bush mask I spotted Bozo, a clown scalp that I pulled over my own hair.
While I rooted around for the attachable nose, Gustavo filled me in: "This Scrubbs dude isn't coming back to town for at least a week, so now's a good time to have your big maternal reconciliation."
"You're sure?" I asked, fixing the round red nose on. "I'll never get another assignment if I miss him."
"I'll call you if his bulbous head pops up," Gustavo replied. "You're going up near Nashville, right?"
"About midway between here and there."
"Anywhere near ..." he peeked in his notebook, "Doomland, Tennessee?"
"Daumland," I corrected. "It's ten minutes away. Why?"
"That's where the Scrubbs child bride hails from: Daumland."
"Any names or addresses?"
"I tried," Gustavo said, trying to light a second cigarette from the first. "All I could get was the town's gloomy's name."
"You know, if you think you're going to fool any doormen or security guards with this stuff ..." I kidded, referring to the novelty items in the backseat.
"These orphans were rescued from a fire in Screwy Louie's Novelty Shop yesterday. I found most of them in the garbage bin out back. I just couldn't resist." He reached in and pulled out a flat Frankenstein top that he clipped over his coiffed scalp, then sipped his Scotch.
After thanking Gustavo for three cups of booze and all the 4-1-1, I got back in my jalopy and called editor Riggs, giving him an update on Scrubbs: he was out of town while the D.A. was convening a grand jury.
"I can write a decent little piece that suggests he might be fleeing the country."
"We're going to print in roughly an hour, have it by then."
"Fine, but since nothing else is going on here, I thought maybe I should dash up to Daumland, Tennessee, and see if I can dig up anything on Missy's family."
"Sounds good, but don't go too far in case I need you back down in Memphis."
I stopped at a Starbucks, fired up my laptop, made a couple of calls, and whipped out my first new item in over four months. It played up the fact that T. Scrubbs was about to be a fugitive from the law. I e-mailed it to Riggs and made a quick grand. Now I only owed nineteen thousand dollars.
When I pulled into the driveway of my mom's shop an hour and a half later, I stopped in to say hi to old Pete, but he was busy doing checkout for an impatient line. As I walked around to the back of the big empty house, it was difficult not to remember my teenage years when this place was crawling with kids.
Rodmilla answered the door. She made a big show of hugging and kissing me, her prodigal daughter. She led me into her huge kitchen.
Like a living newsletter she updated me on the successes of her two real daughters. Ludmilla and Bella had married and reproduced. Three and four children respectively. Both were comfortably situated in suburban Atlanta where they were living in elegant homes and prescribing to Rachael Ray's hasty vision of domestic bliss.
Finally, as she tore her garden-grown mint leaves into her etched-crystal pitcher, she asked about Paul, my wonderful blond husband.
"He was fine last time I saw him."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mesopotamia"
Copyright © 2010 Arthur Nersesian.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
"[Mesopotamia] is a wildly entertaining novel by Nersesian"
"Mesopotamia is a solid, absurdist mystery. It's a vacation from the cosmopolitan, for both its heroine and its authorand, just like the tabloids it skewers, a sensationalist retreat for the reader."
The Village Voice
“'Predictable' would never be a word used to describe an Arthur Nersesian novel. In his eight previous novels (among them The Fuck-Up, Suicide Casanova, and Unlubricated), outrageous situations and sudden turns of events seem to be everyday situations for his characters. These unexpected twists and turns of the plot mix with the charismatic voices of his leading characters, leaving readers clutching their books tightly, madly turning pages in anticipation of what will happen next. His latest novel, Mesopotamia, is no exception....It easily ranks as one of his best works, and serves as a great introduction to an often offbeat but always entertaining author."
"This is satire, of course, and it’s supposed to be over the top. By design, the book often edges into shaggy-dog territory. But the craziness only serves to let Nersesian take aim at his true target the national media. Allusions to the original Mesopotamia (i.e., Iraq) and the subprime mortgage crisis drift just below the surface, giving bite to the book’s comedy. Very sneakily, Nersesian has managed to write a book of ideas (albeit a very funny one)."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)It's no secret that I'm a pretty huge fan of Akashic Books, although even the greatest small presses sometimes have their off-days; take for example their latest, the wacky caper tale Mesopotamia by Arthur Nersesian, which is not exactly bad but is certainly not up to the level I expected from the author of cult classic The F-ck-Up. In fact, if anything, you could really call this 'Carl Hiaasen Lite,' and your enjoyment of it can be directly related to your existing opinion of that Florida-based humorous crime novelist; only in this case things are set around the Memphis area, a convoluted plot that involves white-trash scams, an alcoholic Asian reporter, an OJ-style mixed-race celebrity spousal murder, and a conspiracy that may or may not prove that Elvis is still happily alive, and running of all things an Elvis impersonator bar down the street from Graceland. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's fine for what it is, and there's a good chance that you yourself will really love it; but it just got a little too silly a little too often for me, plus is just full of disposable contrivances that seem to exist only to up the novel's quirkiness factor (like the fact that the main character's raging alcoholism instantly disappears the moment it's convenient for the story that it do so). It gets a limited recommendation today, a case of Akashic being just a little off its usual A-game.Out of 10: 7.9