The Gum Thief
by Douglas Coupland
Coupland, while never boring, is somewhat hit and miss with me. I've enjoyed everything I've read of his, but nothing has matched the genius of his first two novels Generation X and Microserfs. Hey Nostradamus! was terrific, but jPod was too much self-aware and a rehash of his former work, and Eleanor Rigby was an abundance of quirk with not enough substance. The Gum Thief, luckily, is one of his most enjoyable efforts.
Set in a STAPLES superstore, Gum concerns the lives of two of its denizens; Roger, a forty-something man burned out on life, and Bethany, a young goth chick who finds Roger deeply creepy. The story is told through diary entries, as Roger charts his day-to-day existence, and Bethany (after surreptitiously reading the diary) begins a sweet correspondence with him through the pages. Along the way, Coupland intersperses the dialogue with chapters from Roger's novel-in-progress Glove Pond, a hilariously bitter take on Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?.
What drives Gum is the absolute sincerity of the two leads. These are deeply flawed people, and while Coupland is no gifted stylist, he again captures the zeitgeist of people floating free in a society they do not feel themselves a part of. I've always believed that Generation X is that generation's The Sun Also Rises, a snapshot of the era, and Gum's characters are firmly of that mold. It's Coupland's depth of feeling for his characters that has always been his strongest talent, and even when the book feels a little too 'couplandy' (copyright pending on that term, by the way), Roger and Bethany make it eminently worthwhile.
Funny, touching, insightful, and weird, The Gum Thief is Coupland's best in quite a while.
Grade - A-
Punch Line is what some might call a 'noble failure,' but a failure it is.
The plot concerns a ragtag group of senior citizens confined to what some might charitably call a group home, but is in fact Hell. The group has taken upon itself to serve as a form of vigilante justice, meting out death to those them deem not worthy of life.
The strongest aspect of Punch Line is Slinger's take on the 'tragedy' of growing old. His characters, particularly lead protagonist Ballantine, are consumed by their task because society has deemed them to old to have a function. Therefore, their lives are desperately dull, and the sting of Slinger's satire is felt most deeply when he concentrates on this predicament.
However, Slinger has no control of his plot, and spins outlandish tales that remind me of the works of Robert Coover (especially Gerald's Party), except that Coover makes it work. Coover's slides into surrealism are always under control, whereas the bizarre antics in Punch Line seem forced and unwieldly, and never gel cohesively with the rest of the plot. The book as a whole feels schizophrenic, and ends up frustrating more often than it entertains.
Grade - C-