The Old Reactor, by David Ohle. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books, September 2014. 223 pages. $14.95, paper.
Throughout his entire life, my grandfather has worked and lived as a farmer. Years of shuffling feet, skinny legs pressed to the back of tobacco and dirt stained overalls, he bouncing along in the seat of a green John Deere before a slow, meditating descent into his favorite rocking chair in which he sat, hands in lap, looking out over the day’s work, the crickets’ chirping in swells and decrescendos, the summer heat changing their song.
Two years ago, my grandfather took to a wheelchair for the first time. He was ninety-five, and through those long years my grandfather has been accustomed to a pastoral tempo. Hearing of the wheelchair, I worried that a lack of mobility would stop his stubborn heart. But today he is ninety-seven, and he remains.
When I’m homesick, which I often am (for curious reasons that lack logic—my childhood was an unhappy one, and I left Ohio as soon as I was able), I think of my grandfather’s deliberate gesticulations, his willful disobedience in a century of unbelievable locomotion: the way he slowly drains his coffee, leaving tide lines along the mug’s interior, the way he dips bread into his soup, so that the soft middle falls to the wayside, and all that he’s left holding is crust …
I visited my grandfather this past autumn during a road trip with my wife from New Orleans to Toronto and back, making way through Ohio toward Pennsylvania. My grandfather was sat on the porch when we arrived. It wasn’t long after we began chatting that my grandfather confessed to me that he doesn’t understand why anyone would want to live as long as he. This, naturally, sent my mother fleeing to the kitchen, and our once sunny chat died away in the fashion that Midwestern conversations so often do when things get “too real.”
It’s easy to understand grandfather’s feelings—the schism between his tempo and the speed at which the two centuries he’s so confidently straddled is a gulf. And when I take a moment to view the world through his eyes, I see blurred lines, the spirals of a dervish, and the days melting endlessly into one.
David Ohle’s first book, Motorman, was released in 1972 in an extremely limited print run. Word of this mysterious, long form prose poem spread quickly through the more hip literary circles of the time in an awed whisper, feeding legend that that slim, one hundred thirty-five-odd page acid trip amounted to the best book of the decade.
Thing is, most people never had an opportunity to read it.
Calamari Press reprinted Motorman in 2004, and the book circulated on a grander scale, garnering reviews and shining, hyperbolic blurbs. All huff and puff aside, it was clear why so many readers had been so captivated by its text: Ohle had a talent for confounding and astounding his audience with simple, yet painstakingly constructed prose that played with notions of what exactly a writer was allowed to accomplish within the spaciousness of the surreal. Motorman had the ability to insert itself into the spinal tap and screw up the synapses, all without the normal winks or pretensions of postmodernism, creating, while doing so, a reality in which everyday vocabulary put on the clothing of the grotesque, and the dispossessed were unremittingly given control of the metaphorical wheel.
Shopping for my father when I was a child had always been a simple affair. He collected Star Trek books—all of them, canon or not. Christmas and birthdays presents were coveted by simple jaunts to the Elyria mall chain bookstore, where I was sure to find the latest Kirk or Picard adventure in paperback, which I would purchase for ten, measly greenbacks.
When I was young, my dad tried to hook me into science fiction as well by giving me a collection of hardcover Tom Swift books that his own father had given him (it worked). One of those books had Tom on the front cover, dapper in his space suit, helmet in hand, chin cocked upward in defiance, his spaceship behind him ready to explore the unknown. I can imagine my dad (adopted, alienated) finding a profound inspiration in this wayward Tom. An intrepid young lad, on his own, adventuring in space!
A few years ago, an adult and pretty much over science fiction, I decided to get my father the latest Star Trek adventure for his birthday. Living abroad, I no longer had the opportunity to secretly go through his collection—consisting of several bookshelves worth of yellowing Pocket Books and rare hardcovers—to see if he had picked up the latest installment. I figured that my dad, recently unemployed (one of several unfortunate setbacks for him) did not have the cash for such an extravagance, but unsure of which one of the new releases he would prefer, I was forced to call and ask which book he desired.
After a few moments of silence on the end of the phone, my father, sounding sad, said he no longer collected. As to the question why, my father gave one of his classic non-answers and in my own, typical fashion, I left it at that. It was only later that it occurred to me that perhaps he no longer read these books because he had met the future, and it was not what he had hoped for. Why live in fantasy? He might say. Why not deal with the present, phasers set on kill …
Moldenke, the shared protagonist of Motorman and The Old Reactor, is older. He is no longer the test subject of Ohle’s debut—the Moldenke is now political, trading in his willingness to be poked and prodded for the self-righteousness of being a pro-labor activist in the city of Bunkerville. All this would suggest a more mature, self-sustaining Moldenke, but in reality he’s the same weak man, sponging off his aging aunt, waiting until the moment he’s the king of the homestead.
Moldenke no longer cares for death—it is all around him. His body too is weakening, and it makes him sour—his bowels are sensitive, and he is given to shitting his pants at inopportune times (in this we can see a parallel with the incontinence of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman—aging male writers concerned with the breakdown of control). Moldenke’s aunt dies almost as soon as the book opens, and our hardened protagonist (though his aunt is generous enough to give him her house) hastens to personally bury his poor dead relation to save a little bit of money.
While burying his aunt, Moldenke is overwhelmed by intestinal pain, and his weakened sphincter is not strong enough to keep him from defecating on a nearby tombstone. Naturally, a police officer catches him in the act and gives him a ticket. Moldenke is sentenced to the nearby prison town of Altobello and entrusts his newly inherited home to his friend Ozzie, another pro-work activist.
On the road to Altobello, Moldenke befriends a man named Udo and his fifteen-year-old daughter, Salmonella, who explain in obtuse, rapid fire dialogue the rules of Altobello—though Altobello is a ‘prison town,’ its ‘prisoners’ have unlimited wealth and are free to do what they want. In this nightmarish setting, that means eating the same, bland food day after day at a series of chain restaurants sharing the name Saposcat’s Deli.
This theme of freedom, albeit with limited choice, concerns Ohle greatly—it’s intoned and chanted throughout The Old Reactor in an alienating frequency. When Moldenke isn’t busy gorging himself on green soda, or killing ‘Jellyheads’ (a stand-in for culture’s idiots, or in a different reading, a biting, satirical lampooning of the way in which we treat minorities), Moldenke swims in the nuclear water adjacent to the Old Reactor, under the naïve assumption he doesn’t have a care in the world.
Back on the farm—with its picturesque red barns trimmed in white—my mother cares for my grandfather and my sickly uncle, who with osteoporosis and bleeding leg wounds, is in worse shape than anyone else in my family.
My mother plods along in a repetitious cycle of home care and hospital visits, changing catheters and bandaging lesions that never seem to heal. It is a ritual that will never end in nirvana. When I see my mother, she seems puffy and sad, and I worry about her health, and I also wonder if it’s the isolation, the repetition, or the complete lack of self-caring that will kill her first. When I speak to her, I must choose my words carefully. Anything probing provokes tears. To break the façade that everything is ‘working out,’ that the repetition means something, only seems to make things worse.
I read The Old Reactor not having read Motorman. The novel, understandably, confused me. What the hell was going on? Jellyheads? A free town that is also a prison? I found myself desperately searching the Internet, hoping to find some explanation that would break The Old Reactor open. Unfortunately, most explanations were nearly as obtuse as the book itself. I did, however, find one blog comment that stuck with me suggesting Ohle, when contriving the book was not creating anything new, but was instead “treading water.”
I bought Motorman to get the necessary context. Motorman is hypnotic and thoroughly enjoyable—its even, claustrophobic rhythm makes Moldenke’s world unquestionably real. And though The Old Reactor is thoroughly separated from its predecessor, it is impossible to understand Ohle’s Reactor without going back to the beginning, because his newest work is about remembering the time in which this fine author first made his mark, and the speedy, terminal culture he finds himself writing in now.
In a Bomb interview from 2014, Ohle claims that the key to building his dystopian world was to “take current events, add time. The more time I add, the more ruin I see …”
While it’s true that The Old Reactor explores the same topography that Ohle has been obsessed with for some time, earlier mentioned blog comment entirely misses the point. Ohle uses the repetition not because he’s lost his earlier skill; he’s using it for effect.
The scenes set at Saposcat’s Deli, where Moldenke and his companions are subjected to the same, disgusting meals day after day, are a fine example of Ohle at his sharpest. Though one would expect these “free” characters to react with revulsion at the meals before them, they instead greet the slop with enthusiasm. What Ohle suggests with this glassy-eyed satisfaction is that “freedom,” the word and the notion, mean nothing when applied to a contemporary society that finds it wildly grotesque to confront with criticism. Any words are simply swallowed up. Dumb contentment is the symptom of an ailing culture, one unable to turn the mirror on itself, one that is anything but free. Though we may mourn in The Old Reactor a loss of the lyrical precision of Ohle’s earlier works, we must remember that wordplay here is no longer necessary—the world of Moldenke’s is now our own, and vice versus. Why hide it behind pageantry?
It’s been forty-three years since Ohle’s debut, and one can clearly see the time counted on paper. In 1972, the drive of Motorman’s “narrative” came from Moldenke’s optimism. No matter what befell him, Moldenke believed that he would succeed in his mission—to find his love, to discover his lost emotions, to reunite with his mentor. But the Moldenke of The Old Reactor has had ruin piled on top of him, and it has become his home. And through all this our poor old Moldenke, our everyman, will remain, repeating the same meaningless locomotion as he always has, the old reactor chugging slowly along, silently poisoning the landscape we all share without anyone raising the alarm.
Daniel J. Cecil is a writer and editor living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is Managing Editor of Versal, the international literary and art journal. His work has appeared in the Heavy Feather Review, HTML Giant, The Review Review, and Knee-Jerk.