Karoo by Steve Tesich

Please note that this book reaction was written by Shauna McKenna (editor of Moonshinestill).

I recently heard that the word “interesting” no longer means anything. I would venture the same about the word “important.” But there it is, still in our lexicon, and I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to reach back to a time when important things still made you sit up and pay attention, and tell you that Karoo, by Steve Tesich, is one hell of an important book.

Set in the early ’90’s, when Communism was crumbling and good thinking people were wondering what good thoughts to think, the novel is at once perfectly grounded in its history and timeless. Saul Karoo, the titular protagonist, is a sick man, depraved and deluded, and uproariously funny. He couldn’t do right if he tried, and for the most part, doesn’t, until a singular opportunity presents itself.

As a premiere Hollywood script doctor, he salvages and mangles screenplays by turn, depending on your notion of quality. He extends the same kind of devious control to his personal life, savoring any number of itemized neuroses: his failure to get drunk no matter how much he drinks, his overwhelming fear of privacy, his inability to remain subjective, his collusion with his ex-wife in drawing out the end of his failed marriage. In viewing a film he has secretly sworn to refuse working on, he makes a peculiar discovery, which prompts him to take extravagant action. The momentum of his one reach for redemption rockets along while, in the background, Tesich dawdles over the farce of Saul’s life and his relationships in brilliant, comprehensive detail.

But then something happens. Something perhaps unavoidable, given the sheer velocity of the story, but nonetheless disconcerting. The plot overwhelms the book. All the energy and glorious tension are cauterized not only by events in the story, but by colossal changes in the narration. An excuse for the bumpiness of the final section may be that it’s pointedly alienating, drawing attention to the inherent untruthfulness of fiction, but that’s a difficult pill to swallow. We have a thousand and one discursively jarring texts at our disposal; there’s only one Saul Karoo. The book’s conclusion is abruptly moralistic, a steep departure from earlier, wickedly nihilistic sections.

Through all that, it’s still rich reading. It’s still worthy reading. And, let me say it once more, it’s important reading, which is a rare and valuable thing. I don’t think I’ve read fiction so funny since Pastoralia. According to Thomas Beller in Post Road Issue 3, the book received little publicity after its initial 1998 release because it was published posthumously.

Whatever the reason our capricious market shrugged it to the margins, Beller’s doing a great service for lovers of literature by rescuing it in paperback form, along with a new introduction by E.L. Doctorow. Tesich’s Saul Karoo should be seen. He should be pitied. And, as a nod to his love of public conversation, he should be heard.

Details: Karoo, by Steve Tesich, Open City Books, 362 pp., $14.


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