Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Eastbound into the Cosmos: A search for normal in a sea of crazy

Burke_Cover_FINAL(Editor’s note: After a long hiatus The Literate Man was forced to crank up the book review machine by a book so compelling we had to share it with our readers.  Eastbound into the Cosmos is the type of book that reminds us what a pleasure a novel can be.) 

Everett can’t seem to make sense of his past or his future but he knows there’s got to be something better than the shit sandwich he finds himself stuck in.  In Eastbound into the Cosmos we ride shotgun as he transitions from emboldened world traveler and ESL instructor in China to a creature of fear and loathing prowling suburban convenience stores.  It’s a tapestry of international, intercultural and existential daydreaming that scours the deep and shallow themes of belonging.  It’s a fascinating ride and it’s extremely funny.

The unexpected death of his father forces Everett’s return to his childhood home in Chicago and opens up a can of emotional turmoil.  He’s right back where he started just several years older and less equipped to handle his circumstances then before he left.  And on top of that his mother has been carried over the deep-end by a pony-tailed mystic and his crystals.  Crazy abounds. 

Finding it strangely difficult to re-immerse himself in the vita americana and a past that's left him behind, he does the only logical thing: smuggling exotic mushrooms.  Trafficking of Asian fungus may seem an odd choice on the surface and that’s because it is.  His frenemy and ex-roommate from China, Dino, provides entrĂ©e into the world of gourmet mushroom smuggling (“the premium”) but fails to provide a road map.  Dino’s interest in the partnership is not purely commercial –a cult is involved- nor is it compliant with Chinese Communist Party laws, or FDA guidelines, for that matter.  Things get sideways in a hurry.

But superseding his mushroom entanglements is the guerrilla war he’s waging with his mother for her soul: Everett searching for the mom he used to know as Tucky the new-aged guru drags her into the light via hypnosis, naked yoga at dawn and an abundance of sage burning.  Battle lines must be drawn.  The conflict culminates with a memorable confrontation at his guru nemesis’ dojo that goes just about how you might expect.

But the thing about Everett is that he doesn’t give up, even if most of his efforts register high on the pathetic scale.  And that sloth-like relentlessness along with his unfailing narrative honesty is what makes him so compelling.  He sets out to shred through the veil of insanity he finds himself enveloped in and despite his lack of success he trudges on –partly because he’s got nothing else to do and partly because buried underneath his strange and sometimes shameful behavior is an innate sense of justice nudging him along.  As he works through the ambient lunacy he realizes that one man (or woman’s) crazy is another man’s divine.  And underneath the veneer we’re all more or less looking to get to the same place, we’ve just got different GPS coordinates to get there.  The search for that commonality is what get’s him out of bed in the morning…usually quite late after sleeping in and trying to avoid his mother.  

The story hums along, jumping continents and calendar years, filled with hilarious moments and propelled by the multidimensionality of the people and places we’re introduced to.  Burke does a masterful job amidst the milieu of East/West, past/future exploring what it means to belong in both time and place.  In the parlance of Everett that may sound like a lot of "new-age hooey" and it kind of does, but Burke has superbly grounded the characters and the backdrops and avoided the trap of devolving into something cartoonish. 

Burke himself spent a year teaching English in China and has a deep well of expertise to draw from.  He’s long honed his craft as a veteran contributor to Playboy, Tin House, and other publications as well as doing good stuff like helping emerging writers in Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa and working with Words without Borders.  We’re glad to see he finally got around to writing a novel and can’t wait to see what’s next.