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Rocket Man by William Hazelgrove is a funny, entertaining novel which will appeal to a popular audience but delivers a troubling indictment of our times

Review by KEN KORCZAK

One of our greatest writers, Joyce Carol Oates, gives us a powerful paragraph in her 1969 National Book Award winning novel “Them.” In the book, a confused former college student who flunked out of Prof. Oates’ English composition class is writing her a letter. The student writes:

You said, “Literature gives form to life.” I remember you saying that very clearly. What is form? Why is it better than the way life happens by itself? I hate all that, all those lies, so many words in all those books … But I remember you saying that about form. Form. I don’t know what that word means.

Ah yes — “Literature gives form to life.”

That line kept drifting into my mind as I was reading ROCKET MAN by Chicago-area writer WILLIAM HAZELGROVE. But also as I read, I was thinking: “I bet this book is barely fiction at all, but rather a more-or-less spun version of real events from the author’s life.” As a matter a fact, he suggests this is somewhat the case in an afterword note to readers.

And so, like that poor student, one might ask Mr. Hazelgrove: “Why? Why is this book of fiction better than the way your life itself actually happened?

Ms. Oates provides the answer: Because fiction brings form to life.

This is what enables William Hazelgrove to hold up a mirror not just to himself, but to all of middle class America. By making this a work of fiction, he brings it home to us all, helping bring form to our lives.

I noticed that other reviewers frequently latched onto the term “middle class angst” to describe what the author is getting at in this tale. But I think another term captures it more accurately: “Postmodern ennui.”

Websters defines ennui this way: “A feeling of weariness and disgust; dullness and languor of spirits, arising from satiety or want of interest.

The viewpoint character of Rocket Man, Dale Hammer, meets this definition well. He is a burned out novelist mooning over the long-past glory of his three published books, now years out of print. Sailing into middle age and a mid-life crisis, he is too exhausted to write another. He also has achieved a kind materialistic satiety – even though it’s a false gratification because he gained it by taking on ruinous debt. He displays languor of spirit. He may still be obsessed with his literary career, but he has inexplicable misplaced it, like a screwdriver lost in a junk drawer.

So how about the postmodern part? Well, his psychic ennui is being brought on by his immersion in the materialistic and grotesquely avaricious nature of modern American society.

Other great writers, such as Norman Mailer, talked about this kind of stuff all the time. In a 1991 Time magazine interview, Mailer said:

We’ve got an agreeable, comfortable life here as Americans. But under it there’s a huge, free-floating anxiety. Our inner lives, our inner landscape is just like that sky out there — it’s full of smog. We really don’t know what we believe anymore, we’re nervous about everything.

Mailer was also getting at this, albeit tangentially, in his “White Negro” essay of the late 1950s. In it he says that what psychologists call “sublimation” has broken down among Americans because “proper sublimation depends on a reasonable tempo of history.” (Note: sublimation is when we transform are worst primitive traits of lust and violence into positive action for the good of society.)

William E. Hazelgrove

Mailer said our modern society is moving, changing and evolving too rapidly for sublimation to work properly. This might be the situation we see inflicted upon the protagonist of Rocket Man. He’s a good guy and innocent at his core, but the fast-madness of modern life and the constant grasping for material comforts and status is eroding his ability to sublimate his inner demons.

To this end, Dale Hammer keeps getting into small and major-sized jams. His bills are going unpaid, he is ignoring his children, he has alienated his wife to the edge of divorce. He also incites petty scrapes with the law; he sips an alcohol-laced cocktail while driving with kids in the back seat, he speeds in school zones, he bristles at even minor figures of authority. He has devolved without guilt into the role of pathetic small-time slum lord. He’s snarky, sarcastic, irresponsible and lazy.

Yet, despite all this, we can all still like him. We even root for him to triumph over the mess he has made of his life. That’s because, more than anything, we clearly see he is dazed and confused in an blameless sort of way. It’s as if he woke up one day, looked around at the train wreck of his existence, and asked himself: How did I get here? This is my life? Some kind of terrible mistake has been made!

We feel sympathy for him because we all see ourselves in Dale Hammer. So many of us have made all the same mistakes, and, like Dale Hammer, we are bewildered about how things got this way. The neo-slavery of debt? Nonstop work and stress? A country bitterly divided Left and Right? The mindless brutality of AM talk radio? This is the American Dream?

Can you believe that what I’m reviewing here is billed as a “comic novel?” Ha,ha! Well, damned if it isn’t! I’m confident that 99 out of 100 readers will get big laughs from Rocket Man, even if it’s the whistling in the graveyard variety prompted by gallows humor.

As for me, I kept thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote: “I laugh because I must not cry. That is all. That is all.”

NOTE: See also my review of William Hazelgrove’s latest book, THE PITCHER

Ken Korczak is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

Follow @KenKorczak

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