cover image Sewer, Gas and Electric

Sewer, Gas and Electric

Matt Ruff. Atlantic Monthly Press, $23 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-87113-641-1

Arriving eight years after his auspicious debut (Fool on the Hill), Ruff's second novel is a gargantuan but uneven tome: a tripartite, SF roller-coaster satirizing the horrors of our nascent technocracy. Set in New York city in the year 2023, it features a huge cast of characters, including humans, androids and a mutant great white shark, all revolving around Harry Gant, a Donald Trump-style billionaire real estate developer who's building the world's tallest skyscraper, a ""new Tower of Babel."" Holding the many subplots together is Gant's ex-wife, Joan Fine, who sets out to investigate the murder of a Wall Street financier who had sought to topple Gant Industries and who was ostensibly beaten to death with a signed first edition of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. As Fine's research leads her through the history of the Walt Disney Co., Gant Industries and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, not to mention many digressions into Rand's theory of Objectivism, she uncovers a sweeping conspiracy involving a mysterious black plague that wiped out the entire black race at the turn of the 21st century. Ruff uses a cartoonist's palette in his portraits of everyone and everything: Philo Dufresne, the eco-terrorist captain of a Yellow Submarine-style vessel called Yabba-Dabba-Doo; Harvard-educated pornographer Lexa Thatcher; an attack submarine called City of Women (wo)manned by one Wendy Mankiller; a whole caste of ""Electric Negroes"" who serve the city's white upper class. Told with breezy good humor, this exuberantly silly tale will find an audience among admirers of the day-glo surrealism of Steve Erickson and the tangled conspiracy theories of David Foster Wallace. What is absent here are the carefully honed language and the attention to nuance and character necessary to prevent Ruff's own Tower of Babel from sagging under the weight of his pell-mell special effects. (Jan.)