Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Mr. Neutron by Joe Ponepinto. (7.13 Books)
Listening to interviews with comedians I’ve noticed a lot of talk about how people think Trump and his administration have essentially given these entertainers an unlimited amount of material. But because this administration continues to up the ante in ridiculousness, the comedians don’t have time to make fun of it. They aren’t able to exaggerate any action or circumstance because tomorrow, or next week, or next month, that exaggeration has become a reality.
Political satire would fall prey to this as well. When I finished the last season of Veep, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the fictional press secretary Mike (played to doltish perfection by Matt Walsh) and real-life press secretary Sean Spicer. At one point, I couldn’t tell if Spicer was taking cues from the show to be misguidedly hilarious or if Matt Walsh’s performance had been hijacked by the administration.
When I started reading Joe Ponepinto’s Mr. Neutron, I was curious how he’d handle the comedic aspects of writing about politics in today’s climate. He is successful with the humor because he doesn’t try to make the political aspect of it look like a circus. Instead, he draws parallels to horror movies by putting a literal monster into the story. The genre blending Ponepinto employs in his satiric novel saves it from becoming watered down by our country’s own political shenanigans.
Mr. Neutron follows Gray Davenport, a journalist turned campaign manager on the verge of quitting his seven-year gig with the same dullard who will never come to see a day elected to office. Sure, the candidate is a buffoon, but the comedy in the book comes from the perception of the greater populace and how individuals need to navigate through it. There is a point early on when they’re strategizing, but whenever Gray suggests something it is met with push back—That’s too far, they’ll think we’re socialists to We can’t do that, they’ll think we’re libertarians.
As Gray tries to help guide them through the political waters of a mayoral election, he takes aim at their main competition: Reason Wilder. The hulking beast of a man has a certain appeal to him that draws crowds of supporters, but Gray feels like he’s the only one that sees nothing of substance ever coming out of Reason’s mouth. The whole race is filled with hollow talk about making their city better without giving any substantive plans or ideas. Gray makes it his mission to uncover all of Reason’s secrets and quickly is faced with the reality that the candidate is an undead, stitched together monster brought to life à la Frankenstein by his campaign manager Reverend Hand. It all sounds ridiculous and over the top, but strangely the genre blending works. And we’re not going to see any of this pop up in our news next week (even if that might bring some comfort to our reality).
The genre blending Ponepinto employs in his satiric novel saves it from becoming watered down by our country’s own political shenanigans.
The brunt of the book is fueled by plot. Gray has moments of being an intriguing and complex character, but tends to be overshadowed by his own preteen-level of horniness. He starts a professional relationship with a gorgeous woman named Breeze and it seems like we get an inner lust monologue about how he needs to make his move because she’s putting out the signal every time they’re together. There is a scene where, because of supernatural forces, he becomes unable to control his emotions and he comes onto her hard, pushing the idea that she wants to have sex. The problem is this moment doesn’t feel as out of the ordinary as I think Ponepinto was intending because we get Gray’s sexual commentary so heavily leading up to the scene. The two other main characters are Breeze and Gray’s temporary landlord, Randy. They both play their parts in the overall plot—Breeze keeps Gray motivated and Randy gives him support (unbelievable amounts, at times)—but their characters are either in service of Gray specifically or in moving the narrative forward. They only exist because Gray needs them to. The sign of a good character is when you have mixed feelings about them, and while I had mixed feelings about Gray I was never really rooting for him to succeed or fail.
The first half of the book is slow and steady. We get a look at Gray’s disintegrating life, and he’s essentially trying to put one foot in front of the other to keep moving, hopefully towards something better. Once the second half starts, we have revelations and twists dropped on us in nearly every chapter. A lot of wild moments are peppered in the latter half and since this is a satire I know Ponepinto is making a comment on the state of our world through these fantastical scenarios. The issue is he doesn’t slow down enough to actually focus on any of these themes that could speak to the larger picture of our world. Any commentary that could have been expanded on has been skipped over in service of a different plot twist. The first half of the book was all lead-up for the reflection he was going to make about our reality, but since he had too much to say, all of it got glossed over.
Mr. Neutron is an entertaining book with genuine moments of humor. Ponepinto does a good job blending the genres together, creating enough mystery around the supernatural forces, but letting us know early on that there is validity to our suspensions. I wanted to see more character-driven moments to tether us to the overall story since this is supposed to be a look at the individual’s place in the mass populace of our political sphere, but the convenience of plot tended to get in the way for me. Much like Frankenstein’s monster, there are some ugly spots, but overall it moves forward and functions the best it can.