I was going to say The Bialy Pimps is like a lovely glass of wine, but I doubt the pimps would like that. Beer, maybe...but...meh. To hell with it; I'm going to say it.
The Bialy Pimps is like a glass of surprisingly fine wine. Not a cabernet sauvignon--too common. Maybe a bold, earthy pinot noir. A decadently rich gewürztraminer. At times I was sure it was a flamboyant, twenty-year port at once elegant, mysterious, and charming. Not too sweet, but rich and complex with layers and layers alternating between citrusy-spice and honey-vanilla-chocolaty-fruit spiked with suddenly shocking smoke and outbursts of indescribable hilarity that made me laugh until I cried.
Surprising because it's a first novel. Not-so-surprising coming from someone who already writes exceedingly well in another genre. But who knew there was an old vineyard behind the blog and the business?
Who knew what-all was lurking in Johnny B. Truant's portfolio? In The Bialy Pimps, we get a whiff of The Wizard of Oz as the pimps--a group of college students employed at a bagel deli in Columbus, Ohio--search for truth in a world where "people are stupid," stupid enough that they have to be warned to not eat packaging material and don't get it that Ed McMahon's sweepstakes is just a marketing machine that preys on people stupid enough to want to be preyed upon.
The pimps are restaurant workers fed up with rude customers and gone wild with a social experiment. It's ad-lib and out-of-control, but it's much like the Milgram experiment of the 60s in which the willingness of followers to obey orders of leaders--even when the orders are immoral or unethical to an extreme degree--was examined to understand human behavior, especially during times of war and particularly during the Holocaust.
How much voltage could the pimps deliver and how many shocks would the herds of deli customers not only endure, but welcome and pay for?
The irony is that the "experiment" isn't planned--the pimps just want the job without the customers, the customers who are "always right." But they can't get rid of them no matter how poorly they treat them, and the sudden success and celebrity of the run-down, rat-infested deli is brought on by the devious machinations of a sociopathic rival whose thin veneer of sanity is ready to crack at any moment.
We get hints of Dante's Inferno, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. A touch of the macabre and mentally unstable a la Stephen King. A note or two of Charlotte's Web and Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH. Overtones of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland and Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart.
George Orwell's 1984, in particular, is present in this existentially-angsty novel that goes far beyond teen angst. It's a mature, Zen angst, the real angst, the acknowledgement of mortality and knowing that "time can never stand still" and that "you have to appreciate things when you have them, and then let them go."
On the wrap up, one of the main characters, The Anarchist, muses, "I was following someone else's plan, too. I was stupid. I was a sheep....Now, I don't know where I'm going. That scares me, but I'll get over it. Life is too short to spend doing things that suck."
With so many diverse layers, multiple characters, and multifarious details pulled together over so many pages, it's remarkably well done, especially for a first novel. The language--vulgar to some, vernacular for Gen X-ers who spent any amount of time on college campuses or punkish scenes of the 80s or 90s--is captured perfectly. It's a coming-of-age novel, but it's more than that. It's social commentary from the unique perspective of the restaurant worker watching waves of humanity coming and going and witnessing unquestioned roles played out, roles not unlike that of ruler and servant, master and slave.
The pimps turn the roles around as they become the masters and the masters become the slaves--the light S&M scenes had me roaring until the tears rolled and my stomach ached. But even that doesn't satisfy, as The Anarchist notes:
"We thought we could wake up the world, but we ended up finding out that we were asleep, too. We didn't wake up others. But at least we woke up ourselves."
After laughing so hard, how could I possibly cry at the end? Johnny B. Truant has tapped into and drawn from the wells that all great writers draw from. The Bialy Pimps is one of those stories that just shouldn't end, so I started re-reading immediately to see what I`d missed, to savor the finer points.
Like a fine wine, you can't just have one sip. You've got to have another, but you won't forget the first. And after reading The Bialy Pimps, the only thing to do is hope there's going to be more.