When Sam Hiyate’s Gutter Press went out of business in 2005, one of the titles it had under contract was a strange, absurdist novella by American expat AG Pasquella called “Why Not a Spider Monkey Jesus?” The book, about a talking chimpanzee who finds fame as a popular televangelist, is a bizarro excavation of America’s obsessions with the twin poles of capitalism and evangelical religion. Told in brief, dialogue-heavy chapters full of onomatopoetic sound effects and outrageous situations, it has been described by its author, a self-confessed comics fanatic, as a graphic novel without the graphics.
As it turns out, the short book didn’t see the light of day with Gutter. “Basically, Gutter went under as soon as the ink on my contract was dry,” Pasquella says now.
An admirer of punk and zine culture, as well as the 1990s DIY aesthetic espoused by Canadian scribes Stuart Ross and Crad Kilodney, Pasquella decided to bring the book out on his own in 2010. The experience was successful enough that two other self-published novellas followed: “NewTown” (2012), a science fiction tale about a group of militaristic people aboard a spaceship that has abandoned an environmentally ravaged Earth, and “The This and the That” (2014), a series of microfictions comprising a satirical collage of American cultural and social ephemera.
The three books, all long out of print, have now been collected in an omnibus edition called “Welcome to the Weird America,” published by Wolsak & Wynn’s imprint Buckrider Books.
It’s an auspicious time for the three novellas to be reappearing, given the American midterms that have been characterized by conspiracy theorizing about a stolen presidential election, paranoia over non-existent voter fraud, and outré, blatantly unqualified candidates such as former football player Herschel Walker and television quasi-celebrity Mehmet Oz. To an outside observer, the current U.S. political situation appears like nothing so much as an outlandish segment from one of Pasquella’s stories.
“America has always been a land of extremes,” Pasquella says. And the extremes are clearly where the author prefers to operate, channelling the eccentric literary techniques of left-field writers such as Richard Brautigan. The cult novelist’s books — especially “A Confederate General from Big Sur” and “Trout Fishing in America” — made a huge impression on Pasquella, as much for their poetic language as their anti-realist approach. “Brautigan’s poetic sensibilities really attracted me to his work,” Pasquella says. “And just the freewheeling nature of it — the fact that it is so gonzo.”
Gonzo is a good word to describe Pasquella’s own writing in “Welcome to the Weird America,” though a reader would be well advised not to ignore the poetic aspect of the author’s influences, especially in “The This and the That,” which might be positioned just to one side of prose poetry. “I know these aren’t exactly prose poems, but I hope they function in a similar way,” Pasquella says. “It’s not about the plot. It’s about the feeling that people take away from it.”
That feeling is likely to be one of giddy disorientation, co-mingled with a sense that an ineffable truth is hiding behind all the esoteric exaggeration, cascading puns and pop cultural references. Pasquella’s hybrid approach draws equally from literary postmodernism and classic comic books. “It’s unfortunate that there’s still this artificial divide between high culture and low culture,” he says. “I wish there could be a more unified way to look at art.”
For his part, Pasquella — who has also written a trilogy of hardboiled crime novels featuring protagonist Jack Palace — is comfortable mixing genres and combining postmodern aesthetics with the kind of robust storytelling he loved as a child in the work of pulp writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose novel “Synthetic Men of Mars” provided the inspiration for the “flesh blob” that marauds through the latter half of “NewTown.”
That novella features themes of galloping climate change and humans’ depersonalization at the hands of technology (and specifically the AI-infused sex robots that read as powerfully prescient from the perspective of 2022). “The best science fiction is all about the now,” Pasquella says. “It’s not about the future, it’s about the problems we’re facing right now.”
Among those problems in U.S. is the hypocrisy underpinning much evangelical Christianity, which is motivated as much by a desire for money and fame as by any real spiritual care for the less fortunate. This is at the root of Pasquella’s intent in “Why Not a Spider Monkey Jesus?”
“I wasn’t trying to make fun of anybody’s religion; I wasn’t trying to put anybody down for being religious,” Pasquella says. “I was just upset about the idea of televangelists exploiting people’s deepest religious beliefs for their own financial gain.”
These concerns feel entirely of the moment; the time seems absolutely appropriate for Pasquella’s three weird novellas to make a reappearance. And finally, they will appear from a professional publisher, complete with a new cover by renowned designer Michel Vrana. “I love the fact that these novellas are going to live again,” the author says.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION