What if an aging, unsuccessful Minnesota author of history books with names like Old von Steuben Had a Farm: The German-American Settlement of the Midwest decided he could write a book every bit as vapid and ridiculous as the books that sold four hundred times more copies than his own? Well, he would write Death Rat, of course, the thrilling tale of a man who battles prejudice, his inner demons, and a cunning six-foot-long rat.
And what if he was told by publishers that, at sixty years of age, though his book was a thrilling read, he just didn’t look the part of a virile writer of gripping adventure books featuring cunning six-foot-long rats? Well, he would cook up a scheme so outrageous, it would incur the wrath of Gus Bromstad, the beloved author of the homespun Dogwood Downs series of books. And it would stir up the bizarre religious fervor of King Leo, the libidinous funk superstar whose CD “LoveDeathTomorrowJelly” was one of the biggest sellers of the decade. And it would throw him into a strange symbiotic relationship with the entire town of Holey, Minnesota, population 38.
Such is the fate of one Pontius Feeb, the hapless author of Death Rat. . . and perhaps the fate of all who attempt to write gripping novels featuring cunning six-foot-long rats.
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About the Author
Michael J. Nelson is an actor, writer, director, and musician who served as head writer for ten seasons, and on-air host for five seasons, of the television series Mystery Science Theater 3000. He was also the composer of most ofMST3K's original music, and is coauthor of The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide (1996). Nelson lives in Minneapolis with his wife, writer-performer Bridget Jones, and their two children.
Read an Excerpt
Mike Nelson's Death Rat!A Novel
By Michael J. Nelson
Chapter OneGiven his advancing age and his current stature in the business community, Pontius Feeb knew that it was unseemly for him to be driving giddily through town at midday, whistling and thinking fondly of spit-roasted chicken and buttered fingerling potatoes. Ponty sensed that a vehemently antilunch prejudice had infected many in the Minneapolis trade-magazine community. "You can eat on your own time" was the unspoken rule.
Would it change matters if they knew that he was to lunch at Beret, the hot new downtown bistro that had been visited by none other than former Good Morning America host David Hartman shortly after its grand opening? No, sadly, it probably wouldn't. The people in his industry were notoriously inflexible in their attitudes. But Ponty would not let them dampen his spirits.
He weaved his way through Minneapolis's light noon-time traffic and pulled onto Fourth Street, fully expecting to have to make the long ascent up the ConFac Building's massive parking ramp. But this lunch bestowed an unforeseen blessing in the form of a metered parking space directly in front of Beret's entrance.
As he fed the meter, he scanned the faces sitting at the half dozen tables that Beret had set out on the sidewalk and called their patio, seeing if perhaps he couldn't gloat a little over his parking spot. If anyone was impressed, they did not give him the satisfaction.
Ponty had entered, secured a table by the window, and was already nibbling a sourdough roll when his lunch partner arrived several minutes later, trying his best to look harried and important. To Ponty be simply looked thin and fey.
Here was the only downside to a repast at Beret: his lunch companion, Craig Thurston. In Ponty's opinion, the midday meal was too good for Craig, who he felt strongly was a weenie. But he was also Ponty's boss. And he did occasionally buy lunch, a rare positive trait. Ponty tried not to stare at Craig's hair, which challenged conventional notions of male dignity. It was a limp, gray-blond, windblown mess, dully supported here and there by light spritzings of some cheap fixative, and his shiny scalp showed through at various locations across his skull. Craig was a man who wore a collar pin, a sign of deep moral failing. That his collar was often a different color from his shirt only cemented Ponty's opinion regarding his character.
"Whew," said Craig, apparently winded by the effort of driving to Beret. "Did you order?"
"No, no. Waited for you."
"Good, good," said Craig, sighing again, smoothing the hair on the sides of his head and looking about the dining room as though he suspected he might be missing other lunch meetings at some of the other Beret tables. A waitress appeared.
"Hey, there you are," said Craig, and without letting her reply, he continued, "Why don't you give me the smoked trout hot dish and an Egret Springs water, can you? Oh, and bring the Egret Springs in the bottle."
"Actually, we don't have the smoked trout hot dish on the menu anymore. I'm sorry about -"
"I know, but they'll make it for me. They've done it before."
The young woman scribbled on her pad. "You know what? We're out of the Egret Springs. Will Anoka Creek Flowage do?"
"Hmm. No. No. I've been to Anoka, no thanks. What kind of iced tea do you have?"
The waitress answered flatly, "It's in small whitish bags." She gestured with her thumb and forefinger. "We brew it and then chill it by pouring it over ice."
"No, no, no-what kind of tea?" Craig pushed.
"As far as I know, it comes in bulk from a food service. It's called Allied Grocer Groups brand," she said wearily.
"Oh, no. That won't do," said Craig, as though she had just offered him a glass of room-temperature egg whites. "Bring me some apricot-blackberry Assam blend, a pot of hot water, and a huge glass of ice."
Ponty ordered his meal as efficiently as possible, trying not to cause the waitress further distress. Time dragged on as he waited for Craig to get to the point of their meeting, but Craig seemed content to nurture the pained silence between them. So Ponty had to search for a topic of conversation among Craig's nonwork-based interests. So far as he knew, they included his car, a BMW 7-something, and ordering effete iced teas at upscale lunch places. Since Ponty's knowledge of cars was limited to the cockpit of his own Tempo, he tried for a more general topic.
"The Twins are in town today," Ponty offered.
"Really?" said Craig, regarding him suspiciously.
Ponty, who was not in the habit of inventing major sporting events and certainly could not see how anything could be gained by it, nevertheless grew doubtful under Craig's skeptical stare.
"They're not in Detroit?"
"They just finished a three-game series there," Ponty said, feeling his confidence flagging.
"I think they have one more in Detroit," said Craig, craning his neck to look at a table across the dining room.
Could you just let me have this one thing? thought Ponty as he looked at the side of Craig's tanned head. It was never like this with Craig's father, Ponty's former boss at Jack Pine Publications. Tom Thurston was a man of principle, a man who used hair fixatives sparingly, if at all. He and Ponty had virtually grown up in the publishing business together, and in twentyfour years Tom Thurston had never ordered water by a brand name. But Tom had died suddenly, tragically, when a trailer loaded with sod had jumped its ball bitch, sped down the hill near his home, and hit Tom full on as he stood in black socks and sandals, smoking a cigar and watering his wife's hostas ... (Continues...)
Excerpted from Mike Nelson's Death Rat! by Michael J. Nelson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you have anything whatsoever to do with publishing, or with Minnesota, do yourself a favour and get this book. You will laugh until you cry.The characters are immensely likeable and relatable, the story is so implausible it hits an Einsteinian warp and becomes utterly believable, and the humour is simply wry, sharp, and non-stop. You can tell who everyone is "supposed" to be, and that just makes it funnier. And if you've ever, EVER tried to write and sell a book, only to be told that you "don't have a platform" or "aren't marketable," do yourself a favour - read Death Rat!
Very rare that you find a funny book with characters you care about. Worth rereading.
I wouldn't call this the best effort ever from Mike, and more than a little bit of the story is dated (with the not-so-veiled references to Tom Clancy as little more than a technowarrior hack; the improbable sales of Jon Krakauer's wilderness non-fiction adventures; and Garrison Keillor, Prince, and Jesse "The Body Ventura" as local Minnesotan celebrities with more than a touch of madness -- remember, however, that I am reading this nearly six years after the book was first published). Nevertheless, Mike retains in his prose the fantastic turns-of-phrase he so finely honed on MST3K, and actually much of his points about the absurdity and emptiness of contemporary literature is very well-taken. Definitely worth a look for even simply a casual MST3K fan.
Mike Nelson, of MST3K fame, has in 'Death Rat!' produced a fun, fast read that is true to form in terms of the rest of his writing. It tells the story of Pontius Feeb, an unsuccessful history writer who decides to write masculine adventure fiction under a pseudonym, and in the process befriends a local frycook who becomes his alter-ego. However, a number of misunderstandings and slip-ups ensue in Ponty's plan, causing not a few problems and a great deal of complications. Nelson, drawing on the worldview he developed as an essayist, has mastered his portrayal of ernest, retiring individuals trying to get by in a hostile, oblivious world with good humor and a hearty dose of 'what the heck?' moments. Nelson targets a number of industries and individuals for criticism in this book (some of them thinly-veiled), with some of the portrayals working and some not. The laughs, while definately emerging from Nelson's own wacky brand of domestic humor, are of the out-loud variety. Overall, a fine effort for a first novel, and I look forward to Nelson's next work.
Michael 'Junglefever' Nelson is an up-and-coming welterweight writer--and one to be righteously feared by the hacks he so deftly parodies in his first novel, Death Rat. While Mr. Nelson is no Samuel Clemens or Chuck 'The Slasher' Dickens, this is a good thing. (If he were, he'd be moldering in a grave...) I hate writing plot summaries because I think it's the lazy reviewer's way out, so I won't. (The blurb and 'professional reviews' give a good idea of what the book is about anyway;all I could do would be to confuse you even more.) The book uses plenty of current pop culture references (including a beautiful send-up of the Tom Clancy conglomerate megafranchise), but it will age well nonetheless. These sorts of people and phenomena will never go away. The characters are much more of a type than they are particular individuals; King Leo could be any one of about 3 zillion wacko rock stars (though it's pretty clear who it's 'supposed' to be), Ponty is the classic perenially obscure writer seeking vindication, and Gus Bromstad could be... well, any of those silly turds at the top of the current pop book heap, really. Mr. Nelson also makes great use of his Midwestern background. Speaking as a fellow Midwesterner, I feel the scenes and people he portrays feel reasonably true to life, and much of it is hilarious... I feel as if I personally know a lot of the people in Holey, even though I've never been anywhere near Minnesota. But as with any first novel, there are some bad things. The plot is frenetically frantic at times with quite the buildup towards the end, and that can be a hard thing for some readers to swallow at the first go. (I personally like this style of book; others hate it.) I felt a few of the scenes were a bit drawn-out and some of the humor contrived. (Other parts made me laugh out loud violently, which is always a good thing--even if it does make fellow BART riders stare at you.) Other positives: no sex, no real violence (well, a couple of the characters get a little beat up...), no 'sociopolitical' message, no high pulpit preaching. Just a fun read, and I'm really glad I picked this one up--it's a refreshing change from the 'adult' novels we're all supposed to be reading.
I really enjoyed Death Rat. If you don't like funny, you won't like this book. The only problem that I really had was the book is that it has both Michael J Nelson and 'Mike' Nelson - on the SAME cover. Pick it up, put it down, then pick it up again.