Have you ever imagined your soul taking the form of a hot dog? Have you ever daydreamed about starting an ear wax museum? Have you ever read “The Fan Man”??
Over the years, I’ve read William Kotzwinkle’s “The Fan Man” a number of times, though never googled it, for fear that I’d uncover its legion of fans. I’ve met very few people who’ve read the book, let alone heard of it, and part of me wants to keep it that way – as a literary secret. But maybe I’m talking to the wrong people. Maybe “The Fan Man” is as popular a title to baby boomers as “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” I’ll have to remember to ask my parents.
“The Fan Man” seems plucked straight out of the pages of Robert Crumb. Indeed, if it was ever made into a film, it would have to be animated. Live action would never be able to reproduce the experience of reading this book. I’m thinking not of Crumb now, but the languorous, expressionistic style of “The Triplets of Belleville,” although that style probably wouldn’t do justice to the frenetic energy of the narrator’s thought process. Its ideal audio version would’ve been recorded by Dennis Hopper circa “Easy Rider” because no one could say the word man quite like Dennis Hopper could back then. The word man, I should say, appears in nearly every sentence of the book, often more than once.
Horse Badorties is The Fan Man of the title. The setting is Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the summer (© 1974). The book is a kind of picaresque. It’s no coincidence that, after buying an enormous umbrella off a hot dog vendor in Chinatown, Horse Badorties dubs himself a “Knight of the Hot Dog.” His insignia? “Crossed hot dogs on a bun.” And so this (hot dog) knight-errant of the Lower East Side wanders around in a drug-induced haze, obsessively contemplating his food options – every healthy idea is undermined by an unhealthy craving – and collecting junk to clutter up his many pads. Of primary concern, however, is his endeavour to recruit adolescent girls for his “Love Chorus.” All the while, he yearns to return to the pastoral surroundings of his childhood, Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.
(Re: drug-induced haze. Horse claims that what he packs into his pipe is exotic natural New Age-y stuff – “wild asparagus leaves,” “banana flakes” and “Peruvian mango skins” to name a few – but one gets the impression that he’s not being completely honest).
(Among Horse’s indispensable possessions, which he keeps on his person in a satchel, is what he calls “the Commander Schmuck Imperial Red Chinese Army hat,” equipped with ear-flaps to protect him against Puerto Rican music, to which he has an aversion. Just thought I’d mention that detail).
As for the “Love Chorus,” Horse is the maestro. They rehearse in a church, preparing for a one-night only “Love Concert.” In the meantime, Horse awaits the overdue shipment of their musical accompaniment, hand-held battery-powered fans imported from Japan. The collective whirr of the fans, combined with the untrained singing of the girls, will create a sort of music of the spheres. Horse has delusions of grandeur about the “Love Concert” (just one of his many kinds of delusions). One scene involves him maneuvering past security at Rockefeller centre to persuade NBC executives to cover the performance. This comes directly after he’s fallen into a pond in Central Park.
There is a darkness to “The Fan Man,” a similar type of darkness prevalent in Crumb’s comics. Perverted hippie acid trips. Not for the faint of heart. In fact, most readers would cross to the other side of the street if they ever saw Horse Badorties approaching in real life. It’s plain to see that our hero is destitute and unwell. He certainly has some unsavory predilections too (i.e: for adolescent girls). Still, in spite of all this, “The Fan Man” remains the most hilarious book I’ve ever read. And I don’t think the darkness is the point, rather, just something we should keep in mind as we enjoy the book’s inventiveness, both in language and incident.
I don’t think I’m gonna say anything more, man, so I don’t spoil the book for anyone that hasn’t read it. Now, man, I will finally have to google the book so as to get a photo of the jacket, man. But first, man, I must make a telephone call to Alaska!