In September 2006 British comedian Stewart Lee visited the American Southwest to learn about the koshare, a sacred clown within Pueblo Native American cultures. This clown wears black and white striped paint, a loin cloth, and corn husks on his head. He upturns society for one day, pointing out the pompousness of rulers, throwing children into the lake to cleanse them, and trying to get American tourists to have cowboy gun duels with each other. This ceremony is sacred and therefore unrecorded. Even in Lee’s radio documentary White Face, Dark Heart, he could only report on the ceremony after he’d experienced it.
Lee’s novel The Perfect Fool is set in modern times where Bob Nequatewa is an old Pueblo clown living in a world where nothing seems sacred anymore. Disheartened by the fading of his tribe’s customs, he goes on a local news program dressed in his clown clothes to talk about what it’s like being a koshare. It’s breaking all the sacred laws, but it’s also in a time where there’s no one left to care.
Oh yeah, and also there are two stoner wannabe rockstars looking to unite with their American Southwest rock hero, a woman who can’t keep a boyfriend because they all end up killing themselves, a crazy man looking for a joint he dropped decades ago, an old school sheriff on the trail of a killer no one else thinks exists, and an amnesiac who thinks he’s an astronaut on the hunt for the Holy Grail. These story lines converge in the desert, making for the most epic and radical climax you could hope for in a comedy novel from a living legend like Stewart Lee.
Honestly, the fact that it’s written by this recognizable British celebrity isn’t important. If you happen to know about his interest in the Pueblo clowns and his obsession with music, especially the Southwestern rock’n’roll he addresses in his book, it makes sense. But otherwise, aside from a few British terms used in the narration, it feels like it could have been written by someone who spent their whole life in Arizona. You feel the heat, the sand, the clashing of cultures, the fading of tradition, worlds colliding.
Though, it has Stewart Lee’s subtly, too. That is, it works on different levels. He leaves you clues throughout the book as to what’s going to happen and what the secrets of each character are, which you may or may not pick up on as you read. There was one clue I picked up on very early on and was proud of myself for getting right, and there was another reveal that I didn’t see coming which I was thrilled to see drop. So, however clever you may be, this is an extremely enjoyable ride through a ridiculous story and even more ridiculous characters. A definite, definite recommend.