"Under My Roof" by Nick Mamatas; Soft Skull Press; 151 pages; $13.
Never mind the Great American Novel - what about the Great American Suburban Novel? You could argue for John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom books, collectively, or John Cheever's stories, collectively, and make a very good case for a number of others, as well. But somewhere in there, as of now, you almost have to include Nick Mamatas' "Under My Roof," an oddball, occasionally hilarious, surprisingly wise and out-and-out subversive little pocket-nuke of a book.
Narrator Herbert Weinberg is 12 years old and can read minds, which comes in handy for author Mamatas - multiple POV capability and all that - and seems at first to be something of a cheat, but in the end isn't, at all. That's the only off-putting part of the book, and since it's not, really, don't be.
The Weinberg family lives on Long Island in a near-future America in which we're at war with about 40 countries, give or take; gotta keep the fear factor ramped up, after all. The next country on our agenda would seem to be Canada, now tagged as "The White Menace."
Having had just about enough of all this, Herbert's dad, Daniel, enlists Herbert's help in scouring dumps for discarded smoke alarms so they can extract the Americium and fashion a small nuclear device. It's a lot of work, but their sweat and toil pays off. Daniel hooks up the triggering mechanism to the garage door opener, installs the bomb in the lawn gnome in the front yard and secedes from the United States, announcing via fax the establishment of the independent (and nuclear) nation of Weinbergia. Only Palau recognizes Weinbergia, but it's a start.
Naturally, the U.S. responds militarily, surrounding the house with soldiers and tanks. But Weinbergia has struck a chord with a lot of fed-up people, and soon the new nation is flooded with immigrants - most of them former hippies, it must be said.
An ambitious and not overly bright TV news reporter embeds himself in the upstart nation, seemingly intent on becoming a Stockholm-syndrome sufferer. Mom defects, has a makeover and focuses her attention on getting on "Oprah." A scouting party to a local convenience store almost results in the capture of King Daniel of Weinbergia: Captain Whiting of the U.S. Army, frustrated by diplomacy, informs Daniel that "I can shoot you right now." Then:
"A huge spotlight, which had been left on the roof unused since the Qool Mart opened back in springtime, sparked to life and flooded the Hummer with a --blazing beam. Whiting threw up his arm and squinted. Moths fluttered about, mad from light. And a voice, lilting and foreign, declared from a tinny PA system, 'No you cannot! This man is in my parking lot, the territory of the Islamic Republic of Qool Mart Store No. 351, and any violence on the part of imperialist America aggressors will be answered a thousandfold!'"
The honchos at Qool Mart corporate won't take the secession well, of course. A mercenary-led airstrike is already in the planning stages.
All of which sounds silly, even slapstick, and it is. But through it all Mamatas infuses into every character, just below the surface but undeniably there, a kind of antic, frantic frenzy, a wild confusion generated by a world gone so wacko that no response seems appropriate. Young Herbert, struggling to make the transition to adulthood, sees madness all around him, and it's not just his hormones talking. He's perhaps the sanest person in Weinbergia as well as in the surrounding (and rapidly splintering) US of A.
"Under My Roof" is surprisingly tender and forgiving; in this (short) book-length civil war, there is not so much as a single villain or violent death. Everyone is pretty much doing the best he and she can, Mamatas seems to believe. That doesn't say much for humanity, but it makes you think there might be some hope for the sorry individuals that comprise it. If not hope, a few laughs, at least. Which is something.