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Review | Comedian Steven Wright’s first novel sounds like … Steven Wright


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The 1980s comedy scene might be best remembered for flashy provocateurs like Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay. But it was also a good time to be a little more down to earth and a lot more offbeat. “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” deconstructed the sitcom. The absurdist zine Army Man was a proving ground for writers who would work on “The Simpsons” during its glory years. Bill Hicks was as sharp about politics as he was his acid trips. And then there was Steven Wright, an overthinking weirdo who looked and acted like he’d rolled out of bed five minutes before hitting the stage and populated his sets with non sequiturs and drowsily delivered one-liners: “I spilled spot remover on my dog, he’s gone now.”

Wright’s debut novel, “Harold,” is largely an effort to transpose his stand-up sensibility to fiction. Plotwise, very little happens. Its title hero is a 7-year-old boy attending his third-grade class in suburban Massachusetts. It’s 1965, and Harold’s teacher is reminding him to remember his upcoming assignments. But he’s the kind of kid who isn’t going to get boxed in by assignments, or reminding, or remembering. He’s smart but psychically entirely off the grid. “He did more thinking than someone his age,” Wright explains. “Or any age.”

Though Wright, now 67, doesn’t dwell on diagnoses, Harold’s busy brain is almost certainly a case of ADHD. And the background details that flicker into the story suggest he’s processing a trauma or two: His mother has been briefly institutionalized, so he’s recently spent a summer living with his crusty grandfather. If there’s a father around, Harold is stubbornly determined to think about anything but.

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Instead, his cranium becomes a vaudeville revue of curious musings, which he imagines as birds fluttering in a “rectangle in his head.” Many of those thoughts are tart and aphoristic in a very Wright-ian way. For instance:

“Wouldn’t it be great if he had a pair of glass bottom shoes that he could wear on the glass bottom boat with no socks on so that if the fish looked up they could for the first time in their lives see bare feet that weren’t in the water.”

Or: “Harold wondered if bird angels would have four wings.”

Or: “How different it would be if, when boats pulled huge nets out of the ocean full of thousands of fish, the fish were screaming in horror.”

Or: “Being in love was like being on a seesaw where one side contained nitroglycerin.”

And so on. The subjects of Wright’s riffing are all over the place, accommodating black-and-white vs. color film, internal bleeding, Lakota folklore, space exploration. The daydreamscapes are far-flung too: Harold imagines himself visiting a cemetery with a classmate, then kicking back at a coffee shop on the moon, where he discusses the state of the universe with astronomer Carl Sagan. The oddness of the settings hardly matters, though; just about every element of “Harold” is subordinate to its job as a delivery system for Wright’s observations. (Unsurprisingly, he initially conceived the book as a novel-in-tweets.)

“Harold” is often funny, and its refusal to stay in one place means it never feels labored. But: Is it a novel? Though there are characters, there’s little in the way of character development. Harold returns to the matter of his institutionalized mother only intermittently, and as little more than an object of fear or fury. (Understandably: She once accidentally put wine in his thermos.) His grandfather brings storm clouds of dark observations and antics that would require a truckload of psychiatrists to untangle. He tells Harold that all the chairs around the dining room table have been occupied by people who have hanged themselves. (“Kiddingly,” Wright notes. Ha … ha?) Later, he takes Harold to a wedding and fits him in a marionette suit, clipping his strings. That might qualify as symbolism — maybe — if there were a clear story the symbols referred to.

And that’s setting aside odd turns, factual infelicities and jokes that don’t land. Why is Harold chatting up Carl Sagan in 1965, years before he became a pop-science household name? Why is the story contemplating the schoolteacher’s sex life? Why are we on the moon, again? To which Wright can only respond: Who cares and so what? Riffing on a photo taken by a space probe in 1990, he notes: “If you’re wondering how Harold would know of this photograph … mind your own business.”

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Except that’s impossible, what with Harold nattering on about childhood anxiety and lunar living as if Donald Barthelme had been assigned to rewrite “The Little Prince.” Harold is at once compelling and frustrating because he’s so unshaped: His mind is a stew of schoolbook facts, alertness to adult hypocrisy, family dysfunction and miscellaneous psychic damage. Which is to say, a solid formula for a stand-up comic. (Wright’s reading of the “Harold” audiobook is much like his stand-up — deliberate, deadpan and leavened just a bit by his thick Boston accent.)

But a manic kid whose brain refuses to stay in one place isn’t quite the same thing as a story about a manic kid. To be charitable, Wright has invented something here: A story about a child that refuses to be childlike, authored by an author who refuses to pretend that there’s order to the disorganized mind of a too-smart kid who can’t keep on task. “In life lots of times there is no logic,” Wright writes. “Lots and lots of times. Lots of times.” For better and for worse, lots and lots of those times are between the covers of this book.

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and the author of “The New Midwest.”

Simon & Schuster. 256 pp. $26

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