Today's American satirists aren't exactly hurting for material. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have politics; David Sedaris has his childhood; a few daring writers have even found some dark humor in the Iraq war (Nicholas Kulish's 2007 novel, "Last One In," is a potent example). Jack Pendarvis' first novel and third work of fiction, "Awesome," is a slim book, but it sends up multitudes, mocking American consumerism, narcissism and imperialism in one searing, funny riff of a book.
The hero of this tale is a man named Awesome, who's half Gulliver and half Gilligan -- he's as tall as a house and a little slow on the uptake. Early on, he smugly proclaims his greatness: "I am at ease with the lingo of the common folk, explaining complex truths in a down-to-earth-slang accessible to all."
But his beloved, Glorious Jones, gets fed up with his arrogance on their wedding day, and as a way to remove him from her life, she sends him on a surrealist scavenger hunt across America. All he needs to do to win her back is find such things as a needle in a haystack, a four-leaf clover and the meaning of life. So begins a big-game hunt where cliché is the prey.
Pendarvis has a stand-up comedian's sense of pacing, and the funniest passages of "Awesome" have the tension-and-release effect of a well-told gag, carefully unfurled. Beginning his journey, the hero forges a "mighty wagon" by plunging his superhot arms into the earth to gather ore, building wheels out of pieces of a mountain and painting it in part with his heroic blood. Then he calls the wagon Ol' Tuffy, a name as cute as any toddler's Radio Flyer. When he confronts a group of Spanish-speaking laborers guarding the meaning of life (it's a big, heavy box with a question mark on it), he decides to boost their spirits by pretending they've hurt him and falling down. But his fit of noblesse oblige doesn't go well: "Unfortunately," he notes, "some of them were behind me and I did them grave injury when I fell."
Exploitation of natural resources, outsize arrogance and vanity, abuse of low-wage foreign-born workers: It's not hard to see what Pendarvis' targets are. (If you still don't get it, a scene where Awesome hides himself in a missile silo should make it crystal-clear.) But "Awesome" never feels like it's capitalizing on the latest turn of the news cycle. Even if it doesn't rank with Mark Twain, the novel's mocking spirit shares Twain's timelessness -- wanderlust, ego and bloodshed have always been part of the American experience, after all.
The final pages of the book satisfyingly resolve these themes, even if the plot takes an utterly ridiculous turn. This is Pendarvis' first novel, and a loose narrative is padded with the occasional overcooked analysis or, a little too often, a bodily function joke. But even when "Awesome" is at its most absurd, Pendarvis is in strong command of his story, and he knows this turf: His 2007 short story "Your Body Is Changing," was a brilliant spoof of religion, media and adolescence. Anybody who appreciates the arch satire of George Saunders will understand Pendarvis' mission, but he's nobody's follower. Like the lumbering giant he's invented, the path he cuts is entirely his own.
Mark Athitakis is arts editor at Washington City Paper. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.