Review by Maria Bustillos
Let's begin with the obvious: Paul Fenton's Punchline has got a marvelous one. And though I'd had it in the back of my mind that a revelation of some kind must eventually be forthcoming, the nature of it caught me completely by surprise, and added a great deal of depth and richness to what had already been a very entertaining ride. This is a really fun, good novel, though fairly harrowing in bits. Relax! It's just a (moderately horrifying and unnerving) story.
Luca Pope is an aspiring novelist, as yet unpublished, with maybe a little more self-loathing than even that bleak description usually entails. The hilariously effective black comedy here rescues Luca from what might have been too bitter a cocktail of despair. Most of the book consists of Luca's interior monologue, and in the hands of a less skilled writer, the nearly uniform point of view might have grown rather claustrophobic for the reader. But Fenton's prose is elegant and compact, he has superb comic timing and delivery, and in general he handles the whacked-out inner world of Luca Pope really beautifully. There is a multilayered noir plot and a cast of truly bizarre characters, a tumultuous love (or at least sex) story, some wonderful set pieces and a pleasurable amount of murder, drunkenness and mayhem. Beneath all that, though, there are hints of a deeper message – about the torments suffered by would-be artists and the soul-crushing nature of modern life, and office life in particular; these big-picture moments are where the book really shone, for me, and I am hoping to see Fenton take this kind of writing farther still next time. It's a very good question, really: what exactly is this mysterious urge that drives a person to write, or even just to want to "become a writer"? A person who could otherwise spend those limitless hours of study and scribbling and revising and hand-wringing doing anything else, such as rollerskating, lovemaking, playing with the cats, or baking cookies?? I ought to know, since I am a fellow-sufferer, but even after all these years I'm not really any closer to understanding that weird compulsion.
Punchline is at bottom the familiar story of one man against the world. Fenton creates in Luca Pope an anti-Everyman who calls forth by turns sympathy, revulsion, laughter, and, I daresay, a certain degree of identification, particularly for anyone who has ever fancied himself a writer. It's a novel of alienation rather than a straight-up crime novel, following in the footsteps of Kesey, Vonnegut, Kafka and Orwell more than in those of Elmore Leonard. As in this passage, where Luca's self-reflection takes a turn, either toward the darkness or the light – we're always kept guessing.
“I have not completely lost touch with reality. It's like when you have a toothache which comes and goes, sometimes bad and sometimes not so bad, and you know there's a cavity in there getting worse with every day you don't see a dentist, but you convince yourself you shouldn't worry about it until you actually do see a dentist, and so you carry on under that subtlest of delusions.
“Not a psychotic break. More of a psychotic sprain.”
Punchline is a no-holds-barred investigation of the darker recesses of the creative mind, written in a funny, fresh, original voice. It would make a really splendid movie too. I'd go on, but I daren't, for fear of spoiling the joke.