Review of David Duchovny, Bucky F*cking Dent
Reviewers of David Duchovny’s first novel, Holy Cow, slung plenty of ink about him being an actor. Fair enough — Hollywood is cool. But just behind that is a whiff of “celebrity having a go at writing”, which is invidious because, with a pair of Ivy League literature degrees, old mate Dave has a better literary pedigree than most of his reviewers. So I’m not writing about Duchovny the actor, because that isn’t relevant: Bucky F*cking Dent proves that Duchovny is a novelist, and a damn good one.
Holy Cow was a wry, piss-takey fable; deeply enjoyable, but jokey enough that Duchovny could have stepped away, pride intact, and dismissed it as a lark if it had tanked. With Bucky F*cking Dent, it feels as if Duchovny has sat down at the proverbial typewriter, opened a vein, and bled.
The result is an excellent literary novel of wit, heart and emotional depth.
Set in 1978, Bucky F*cking Dent is about Ted Lord Fenway Fullilove, a “quirky dude with a BA in English literature from Columbia who works as a peanut vendor in Yankee Stadium while he slaves away on the great American novel”. Ted’s life isn’t glamorous; he’s fat, clad in old tie-dye, drives a Corolla with plastic bags for windows, and smokes too much weed in a crappy apartment. His closest relationship is with a Grateful Dead tape.
His prose is good but his stories aren’t: the heart is missing. “You write well. About nothing,” Ted’s agent says. When Ted’s estranged father, the magnificently profane Marty, is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Ted moves home to care for him, helped by a beguiling “death nurse” and love interest, Mariana. A well-trodden narrative, you might say. But not the way Duchovny handles it.
The novel’s surface conceit is baseball. Whenever the Red Sox win, Marty’s health improves. But as anyone who knows baseball knows (i.e. not me), the Sox never win. So to keep his father alive, Ted plans to give Marty an elusive Red Sox World Series win by faking the results — replacing scores in papers, playing winning games on VCRs. The book’s dust jacket places this caper at the novel’s core, but it’s really just a McGuffin — a plot device. Duchovny’s novel is much darker and more emotionally complex than that.
Back in his childhood home, Ted grows steadily closer to a father he believed neglected him. Within their rude banter, Ted discovers Marty’s own deep frustrations: a would-be novelist, he wrote ads instead of books to support his family. Ted also learns that Marty’s long-term disengagement stemmed from rejecting his true love to stay with Ted and his mother. Discovering that Marty was a much better father than he had believed prompts Ted to unravel himself and confront his skewed life story, a process that quickens him artistically and psychologically. But Duchovny goes deeper still, into the big stuff: art, failure, loyalty, the persistence and fragility of love, mortality, grief, and life, the “final hopeless, glorious charade”. As Marty gets sicker, father and son are shucked of their banter and brought raw to each other, as flawed but loving men.
These emotional storylines are unfurled with the narrative skill of a screenwriter/director, but delivered in air-punchingly good prose. Within a passage, Duchovny silverfishes between wit and lyricism, blending highbrow and low, taking literature seriously and then poking fun from the other side of the sentence. Ted can observe his father “woken from his slumber, vulnerable, his dreams still clinging to him like … cigarette smoke”, then call him an “Ornery motherf..ker”. This careful tension in the prose between comedy and pathos communicates one of the book’s main concerns: the difficulty of men communicating love for each other. (I still punch my brother “hello”.)
Bucky F*cking Dent is an exciting novel. It’s also promising: Duchovny flexes a literary voice in a way that anticipates an extraordinary third book (no pressure, mate). There are still some kinks. Notably, while Ted and Marty are writers, they reach too often for highbrow allegories. As a literary type, I can’t say I’ve ever cited William Blake in my subconscious musings. But maybe I’m just missing out. This self-conscious erudition feels brittle, like Duchovny justifying his place at the literary table. But he doesn’t need to cite the great and the good for that, his writing does it for him.
Too much new American fiction is pretentious, all lip-synching the same mumblecore banalities. And as Ted’s agent says, “Life is too fucking short to read books like [that].” Duchovny has written the kind of novel I’ve wanted for ages: swaggering, literary, romantic, funny, warm-blooded, sad and true. Bucky F*cking Dent is very f*cking good — it’s rock ’n’ roll. And it’ll make you call your dad in the middle of the night just to hear his voice.