Michael J. Nelson: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!

Michael J. Nelson: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!

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Mike Nelson's Death Rat!

Author: Michael J. Nelson
Publisher: HarperCollins

The fevered title and pulp-magazine cover of Mike Nelson's Death Rat! should be a dead giveaway as to the book's inherent lack of gravity, but just in case they aren't enough, former Mystery Science Theater 3000 writer-host Mike Nelson seals the deal on the first page by introducing a protagonist named Pontius Feeb. Like so much else about Nelson's first novel, Feeb's name is somewhere between amusing and jarring: not exactly funny, but not to be taken seriously, either. As an easily cowed, aging writer of history books like Where Did Amerigo?: Vespucci And The New World and Better Than Great: A Maritime History Of Lake Superior, Feeb has nowhere to go when the small publishing company that's employed him for 24 years is liquidated by its late owner's son. Attempting to emulate more financially successful authors, Feeb concocts an adventure novel that's solidly based in the historical minutiae of a small Minnesota town, but features a vicious six-foot rat. But when he attempts to sell the book, he's told that a short, balding, chubby 60-year-old doesn't fit the public's image of an adventure-story writer, so he hires broad-shouldered unemployed actor Jack Ryback to pose as the book's author. Without reading it first, Jack sells Feeb's Death Rat to a slick, shallow agent who also doesn't read it, and subsequently markets it as a true-life adventure. Panicked and anticipating his arrest for fraud, Feeb bribes the town of Holey, Minnesota (population: 38) to cover for him and claim that the giant rat really existed. Death Rat quickly becomes a bestseller, opening the way for a baffling farce involving a temperamental folk-tale author who wants Feeb killed, an eccentric funk star who starts his own religious movement around the rat (which he dubs "the Funka-Lovely-Creative-Spirit-Being"), and the colorful Minnesotan governor, who's closer to the president from Roald Dahl's Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator than to the well-known public figure he's clearly spoofing. Given Nelson's apparent affection for his home state of Minnesota, and his dedication to exploiting both its small-town stereotypes and its wacky celebrities, it's disappointing that he doesn't go further in portraying the conflict between the two extremes. (Or the extremes themselves, for that matter. The affable King Leo, a.k.a. "Milord Nasty Pants, the Magistrate of Penetrate, the Commander in Chief of the Overstuffed Briefs," etc. etc., is possibly the most forgiving and generous Prince parody ever put on paper.) Nelson's prose is lively and his dialogue often sparkles, but he misses his opportunity to comment meaningfully on Minnesota's far-flung human poles. Instead, he gently pokes them into a cute but random and toothless satire that's no weightier than Feeb's own rat tale, tailor-made mostly for Christopher Moore fans and Garrison Keillor haters.