When John Shirting finds himself in Prague, he encounters a motley collection of characters, from Neo-Beatnik Golem hunters to babushka armies. Luckily he has his pills and his coffee. Shirting is the protagonist of M. Henderson Ellis’s novel, Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe. (Hereafter Bedlam because I’m into the whole brevity thing.) Like some madcap mashup of A Confederacy of Dunces and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, Ellis gives us a tour of Central Europe in a world one can sum up as post. Postmodern, post-industrial, and post-capitalist. Shirting’s evangelical commitment to spread the good news on Capo Coffee comes off as a bit daft, especially in a global economy where both Communism and Capitalism have shown their flaws. This Babbitt on the Danube is blissfully unaware of the global economic meltdown more commonly known as the Great Recession.
Ellis also spent some time in Prague. This gives Shirting’s misadventures an infusion of realism. One becomes aware of Prague’s convoluted urban geography and the hodge-podge of medieval-era gingerbread buildings crammed up against gray monoliths erected under Communist rule. Through Shirting’s eyes we see the dissolution of Communist tyranny and the gradual influx of Western free market capitalism.
In his wanderings he meets Jason “Bunny,” a former roadie for Guns N’ Roses, who now runs a clandestine bar known at the Pump Room. Bunny sums up the situation for Shirting,
“Marlboro is the symbol of freedom here. It’s a political statement to smoke Marlboro. So what you get are the worst aspects of capitalism colliding with the hind-end of communist corruption and bureaucracy. How does one resolve that? I keep a Kalashnikov in my office. If you want one, let me know.”
Shirting takes this lesson in stride, since he works at the Pump Room only until he can set up Capo Coffee franchises. Capo Coffee is a Starbucks stand-in, except instead of a Moby-dick reference, the corporation has an organized crime theme. Baristas dress like mobsters and serve Al Capo’acinos. Despite being fired from a Capo Coffee franchise in Chicago, Shirting is committed to bringing the good news (and good beans) to the citizenry of Prague.
The novel takes great pleasure in portraying the pretentious absurdities of poseurs. Whether they are political poseurs like Shirting’s rival Mizen or the three pompous expat writers, Ellis gleefully pokes holes in their self-righteous earnestness. We realize, beneath all the posturing and inflated rhetoric, lay a vapid emptiness. With his acidic satire on the overblown idealism of the arts and lit set, Ellis pays homage to the grand comedic tradition of satirists like Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Burgess. Burgess is most known for A Clockwork Orange, but he also wrote the Enderby series. The Enderby novels followed the life story of a minor poet named Francis X. Enderby.
In another episode, Shirting attempts to teach a prostitute English and then has a Proustian moment when he discovers her collection of Atari games in a shoebox. To explain any more would take away the fun. This book comes highly recommended along with the cliched statement, “If you’re going to read one book this year, have it be …” I would compare Bedlam to The King of Pain by Seth Kaufman. Bedlam is chock full of hilarious set-pieces, strange characters, biting satire, and verbal bombast. I’m giving this book a high rating because it is not only wonderfully written, but it is a book that has wide cross-over appeal. The Adrei Codrescu blurbs on the front and back cover give it the needed NPR hipster bona fides, but this is also a light comedy one can read on the beach, at the airport, and elsewhere.
One final note: the cover of Bedlam was illustrated by Andras Baranyai, giving the book an edgy punk cartoonishness.
Out of 10: 9.5