The Sugar Frosted Nutsack
by Mark Leyner
Little, Brown and Company; 256 p.
Mark Leyner. Once grouped with heavyweights like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, he became more of a third wheel discarded on the side of the highway. This was my first Leyner story, though I will probably pick up Et Tu Babe next, based solely on the reviews and critical appreciation of that book and not really on anything I see in The Sugar Frosted Nutsack.
The premise is very meta, a commentary upon a story never told. Multiple references are made to The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, a story enacted by Ike Karton that eventually morphs into a recitation by vagrant blind bards. As the beginning of the book explains, the gods that control Ike’s life have origins that stray from what one might expect. El Brazo came to power bare-chested and in basketball shorts to become the God of Virility, the God of Urology, and the God of Pornography. And XOXO, who runs the life of Ike the most, “liked sitting around with circus performers and hockey players and boxers and plying them with drugged sherbet.” Obviously not the typical god-complex.
XOXO screws up Ike in many different ways, but also sets him down an unalterable future, no matter Ike’s quests or screwups. This is the story of “The Sugar Frosted Nutsack,” but that story is never really told — instead it is referred to, audience members comment on it, a narrator makes inferences about ways the story should go. This is Pale Fire without the “Pale Fire.”
At times this book is fun and quirky, I guess, but it mostly felt tedious. Leyner tries to one-up himself with a new joke every sentence, some of which are enjoyable, but the prose really gets bogged down in the pseudo-pop culture myths it continually heaps on itself. A big feature of Nutsack are the bolded names of celebrity references. At a glance, this makes the book jump out to the casual reader, within the actual story it seems completely unnecessary. Name-drops like Chace Crawford and Miley Cyrus and Tila Tequila and C.C. Sabathia happen without much context, making it feel like Leyner is reaching towards a culture that he doesn’t participate in. Yeah, I know he writes screenplays, etc. but for him to insinuate names like those with absolutely no contextual references makes his attempts seem more desperate than calculated. It would be easy for Leyner to track back and excuse this by insinuating that this is the whole point, but the supposedly driven nature of Ike doesn’t lend that much credence. Too much infusion of pop culture combined with a witty joke-per-minute beat makes the writing become tired too quickly. Perhaps a glossary of references at the end would have made this more palatable, just so this book could hold up longer and better.
All of this is kind of sad, because two of Leyner’s best tropes — the Mister Softee jingle and Sunkist — wear well throughout the book and the way he thoughtfully inserts those references throughout becomes an enlightening game.
Ike doesn’t fully come into view until 30 pages in, which would be fine except that Leyner really builds up the world of the gods without making the reader care for any of the gods. Instead Ike is pushed upon us like a token pawn (yes, I get it, he’s being controlled by outside forces) but that doesn’t make a reader relate to him in the story, nor are the gods given enough individuality or character to make the reader feel for them either. Instead, it’s some jokes about pushing and pulling a hapless rube through life, one unlikely to provoke empathy, no matter how sharp of “post-pop-fiction” this is.