ONCE UPON A TIME, on the planet Cronk, Lords Nietzsche and Namath spoke unto Archie and Edith and told them, "Lo, this planet is full of evil and we shall destroy it. Build thou a rocket ship and send thy child in it and he shall be a saviour to the planet Earth." And Archie and Edith did as the gods commanded. Cronk was annihilated and the blue-haired infant arrived in America, discovered and adopted by an elderly and kindly couple, Franklin and Eleanor.
They named their foundling David Brinkley and taught him the meaning of goodness. When he grew up, he became a tough New York reporter. But underneath his not-so-mild-mannered facade, he was the greatest superhero of all, vulnerable to only one substance: Cronkite. And Brinkley was alone. All the other superheroes were dead or useless. Snoopy was missing in action after the Red Baron finally shot him down. Wonder Woman was working for Ms. Magazine. Captain Mantra was in a suburban sanitarium, after swearing off the use of his superpowers when he witnessed the death of his sister Mary. An Amtrak train obliterated her after Dr. Spock bound and gagged her on the tracks.
Brinkley, the protagonist in Robert Mayer's comical novel Superfolks, was sinking into complacent and oh-so-comfortable middle class, middle age life on Swansdown Island, a "suburban pocked" retreat outside New York. Beneath his happily married, proud-daddy exterior, he was helplessly wondering why his superpowers were inexplicably vanishing.
Mayer uses the plight of the aging comic-book hero to parody most of what characterizes America and everything that makes up New York. Shortly after the novel begins, chaos strikes the bankrupt Metropolis. The unpaid and overworked police force have resigned en masse and looting, rape and murder pervade. Brinkley, watching football, curses his bookie and tries to ignore the city's crisis until the fateful thought strikes him, "Is it a conspiracy?" Needless to say, it is. And Brinkley plunges into a crisis of conscience. Should he leave the repose of his suburban home, his loving wife, his comfortable desk job (he is no longer a tough reporter but a slightly paunchy copy editor) and once again save the world, even with his waning superstrength? Or should he safeguard his comfort, ignoring his boredom and his nagging Cronk conscience?
Like any red, white and blue interplanetary alien, Brinkley opts for what is right. The book recounts his exploits as he searches for the root of the conspiracy. Is it the Mafia, the Russians, or the Texas oil millionaire? Could it be--gasp--the CIA?
Anyone who has ever read a comic book, watched a rerun of Superman or tuned in same bat-time, same bat-station, knows, despite sweating palms and churning stomach, the superhero always wins. But lingering childhood confidence in the media creation cannot quite assert itself against Superfolks. Mayer is not Alfred Hitchcock or Agatha Christie, and when one turns a page anticipating a crucial revelation and finds instead a new, unrelated chapter, one can cringe and say "Aha. He's trying to build suspense--cheap trick." The simple reason Mayer used moth-eaten tactics is that he can use them successfully. Besides, everything else is parodied in this book. Bella Abzug drives a taxi, Bill Buckley is a Tombs prison guard and Holden Caulfield is a proctologist. Maybe, just maybe, the good guy gets squashed.
Mayer teases his reader in a subtler, more ambiguous way as well. Sandwiched between jibes at Yiddish, first love and Herbert Hoover is an apparently serious statement about American politics, values and mores. But the reader is never quite sure when Mayer crosses the line between humor and conviction. The angels in Heaven bustle about designing portable restrooms, and manna and nectar refreshment concessions for the up-coming gala bimillenium. ("We're expecting millions of tourists," Mary tells Brinkley.) The bumbling corruption of Soviet-American disarmament negotiators and the CIA's school for assassins are cleverly ridiculed, but the caricatures contain more than a morsel of truth. Yet the whole "message," if it is indeed a message, is almost too absurd.
THE SAME READER who inwardly cheers when the CIA agent confesses at the White House (just in the nick of time) and is rewarded with the "large, white toothy smile" lighting the black president's face feels disappointed and foolish when the actual source of the conspiracy is revealed. Although Mayer jeers at immorality, he ultimately shifts the blame from us, perhaps in pursuit of, perhaps as a jab against happy endings. The conspiratorial evil is not the evil of earthlings. Instead Pxyzsyzygy, that impish elf from the Fifth Dimension, manipulates us and warps our innate goodness.
The reader is almost certain that Mayer is basically writing a comedy but inserting an obligatory, though sincere, political statement. On the other hand, one cannot help but wonder if the righteous reformer reading the book is the ultimate patsy. Maybe Mayer would laugh if he thought someone was actually trying to discover a message between the onslaught of one-liners. Yet it does not really matter. The humor may drag occasionally, particularly during the intergalactic battle scenes. The intentionally hackneyed plot might vanish periodically. But Superfolks, political or apolitical, is still a very funny book. Even Lord Nietzsche would have chuckled.