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Book review

Getting hooked on laughs in Alaska

Email|Print| Text size + By Johnny Diaz
February 2, 2008

Hollywood script coordinator Nelson Kunker wants more out of his job and his life. He works for a low-rated late-night sketch comedy show called "Aftertaste." He's single, and he can't seem to finish writing his novel.

"What had me worried was that I was an artsy, thirty-four-year-old man who needed to confront whether I was really talented or just gay," says Nelson in the new novel "Selfish and Perverse," by Bob Smith.

And what begins as just another day in the world of a Hollywood show unfolds into a series of witty episodes that ends in Alaska, where the book becomes a gay "Northern Exposure."

Smith, a stand-up comedian and former writer for Fox's "MADtv," mines his TV background for all its comic gems as Nelson searches for true love and purpose in life.

The journey to Alaska begins in Hollywood, where Nelson meets his boss's cousin, Roy, an Alaskan fisherman and full-time archeology student who is visiting the show's set. Nelson's staid life suddenly turns into one of fun and adventure as the men begin to court each other.

Nelson's boss fires him after catching him smoking pot with Roy and Dylan, the show's hunky guest star that week. Just released from prison, Dylan is trying to jump-start his career.

When Roy and Nelson decide to break into the La Brea Tar Pits on their first date, Nelson falls in and gets stuck in the tar. TV helicopters descend on the scene and record the rescue.

Dejected over losing his job and being humiliated on national TV, Nelson accepts Roy's offer to spend the summer with him in Alaska, where he can fish for salmon and reel in his novel. Dylan tags along, to prepare for his next film role, that of a fisherman. The book picks up momentum as a love triangle takes shape among Roy, Dylan, and Nelson in Anchorage and neighboring towns.

Smith paints vivid pictures of Alaska, such as this one: "The sun had the glazed appearance of an overworked employee, exhausted from weeks of overtime." In another scene, he describes Anchorage as "the unspoiled, handsome boy from the sticks who was charmingly unaware that he could model."

Smith's fluid and breezy tone propels the plot, which places the lead character in various professional and personal tugs-of-war. Nelson must choose between Los Angeles and Hollywood, Roy and Dylan, and writing for television and finishing his novel.

The unsung character of the book, though, is the salmon, which becomes an overriding theme. Smith uses the fish as a metaphor for Nelson's lackluster love life. Just as a salmon pushes itself to swim upstream to mate, so must Nelson, or any gay man, try to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of his finding true love. "He swims upstream struggling against the current and the Christian right," Smith writes.

The author sprinkles the book with comic touches, sometimes too many. Punch lines are found on most of the pages and interrupt the storytelling. The reader braces for the next gag just as he or she becomes engrossed in the story.

But if you can overlook having one too many chuckles, then "Selfish and Perverse" might be a selfishly fun read.

Johnny Diaz is a member of the Globe staff.

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