September 24, 2009

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The Sheriff of Yrnameer, by Michael Rubens (Pantheon Books, 2009, 269 pages)
By Nate Graziano letters@hippopress.com

Question: What do you get when you cross Star Wars and Blazing Saddles with a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novel?

Michael Rubens, a writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, has answered this with his first novel, a sci-fi satire, The Sheriff of Yrnameer (futuristic jargon for “Your name here”).

Let me preface this by saying that I’m not a science-fiction type of guy. I read Vonnegut in college, stole a few of his more pithy jokes to pass off as my own (most notably H. Lowe Crosby’s definition of a “pissant” in Cat’s Cradle), but, for the most part, when it comes to understanding the complications of space and time or the concept of an infinite universe, I fall into a fetal position and weep.

Fortunately, you don’t have to understand the science to get the satire in Ruben’s debut novel. In fact, much like Vonnegut, Ruben uses the sci-fi setting as a convenient device, a looking lens through which he can lambaste the present, and if you miss the brick-to-the-back-of-the-head satire in The Sheriff of Ynrameer, it’s beyond this reviewer’s capacity to help you.

Cole, the novel’s loveable-loser protagonist, is a Han Solo-type character, a rebel pilot and underground criminal with some heavy gambling debts to some scary creatures and a sense of morality that rattles like a robot with rusty screws. After Cole hijacks a universally renowned and handsome reality star’s spaceship and does a stint on a satellite with flesh-eating zombies, Cole lands the ship filled with freeze-dried orphans (you read that right) in Yrnameer. Described as being a place “about the dream of peace, the ideal of compassion,” Yrnameer is a utopia free of the pernicious strangleholds of an advertising-saturated universe, a place with independent bookstores and jewelry shops and food co-ops. Basically, it’s Vermont. Unintentionally, Cole kills a crowd of Bad Men terrorizing the town, and the exuberant and indebted peace-niks of Yrnameer appoint Cole sheriff to help them confront another crop of Bad Men heading in from the horizon.

The plot in The Sheriff of Yrnameer is not complex or convoluted by character development; it is a simple “good versus evil” yarn with some trenchant narrative hooks thrown in. After a somewhat slow start, Ruben sells us a love story and some page-turning high-drama. But the intent here is never to suck you in with internal conflicts or philosophical subtext: it is to satirize American culture and our moronic obsessions with the superficial and celebrities. It’s quite simply about our loss of community and identity as a result of our own voracious and stupid consumerism.

While Rubens’ satire is far from subtle — in fact, he uses a huge “farging” club — there is no sense of the author trying to use trickery or writing over the reader’s head. In short, The Sheriff of Yrnameer is a book that, at its best moments, is laugh-out-loud funny. Vonnegut, Rubens is not. But in fairness, who is? Michael Rubens is, however, a more than worthy stable mate of the late master of dark satire and entirely adept in the genre. In the end, we see ourselves as foolish and silly through Ruben’s futuristic lens.

It’s about farging time.

B+  —Nate Graziano