At the start of Seth Greenland’s comic novel “The Angry Buddhist” two American women get matching tattoos to commemorate their quickie affair in Mexico. Mr. Greenland notes that it will be harder for the married woman to explain why she has a new manga-style kitten on her buttock than it will for her single lover. Really, it’s hard to argue with that.
It’s also hard to explain who these women are, let alone what they were doing together. So Mr. Greenland takes his time setting up a crowded screwball farce about the political campaign that somehow threw them together. When this book was warmly received in France last year, Le Figaro listed “un lesbienne maître chanteuse,” “une adolescente perverse,” lying politicians, stupid hoodlums and “un shérif psychotique et ultra-violent” among the many characters spinning through it. The spirit of Monsieur Elmore Leonard also animates the action.
As “The Angry Buddhist” begins, it’s a week before Election Day in the California desert. The Congressional campaign is red hot in all sorts of ways. The great-looking Mary Swain, running as “hell in high heels,” can work a crowd into “a supine mass of quivering optimism.” She’s a mom who supports the death penalty, a strong military and no taxes. She is also a former stewardess who learned the art of flimflam from the subprime mortgage tycoon she married.
Her opponent is Randall Duke, a corrupt incumbent who is falling back on a vague family-values platform. “We’ve seen where having no values has led us,” he proclaims. “To Sodom and Gomorrah, and I don’t mean that in a judgmental way.” Since this is the best kind of politicking Randall’s got, Mary Swain scares him. “I’ll tell you what, it’s a bitch running against somebody Joe Sixpack wants to leave his wife for,” he complains.
Randall is willing to do anything to get elected, even if it means springing his simpleton brother, Dale, from a state prison in order to stage a joyous family reunion. The effect would be happier if Dale were not a petty crook who speaks only in nonsense rhymes. Not to mention a paraplegic who shows up in one scene with “My Tongue Still Works” written on his T-shirt.
The angry Buddhist of the title is the third and most decent Duke brother, Jimmy. Jimmy used to be an unhappily married mess. Now he is trying to improve and enlighten himself, with mixed results. He is extremely kind to unwanted dogs. He has stopped drinking and switched to alcohol-free beer, though he still occasionally wants to hit somebody with a bottle.
Jimmy has anger management issues and a law enforcement officer’s tough-guy mind-set. He used to serve on the Desert Hot Springs police under Harding Marvin, a k a Hard, the psychotic, ultraviolent sheriff who so impressed Le Figaro.
And now, in this elaborately structured yet remarkably knot-free book, we are only one degree of separation away from that manga tattoo business. One kitten adorns the butt of Randall’s wife, Kendra, who used to be a singer. (“This is a woman who sang for thousands of people in her career — although, to be clear, not at the same time,” Mr. Greenland writes of her.) The other belongs to Hard’s reckless girlfriend, Nadine Never, “who Hard thinks might be crazy in the way of heavy medication and locked wards.”
The Kendra-Nadine romance doesn’t matter to the book except as one of Randall’s many political liabilities. (“Who wants to be known as a congressman whose wife became a lesbian, even temporarily? Let him explain that to his colleagues on the Homeland Security Committee.”) Another problem for Randall is his and Kendra’s daughter, Brittany, whose hobbies are being sullen and sexting, not in that order.
This is a huge cast of characters to unleash in one novel. It’s such a high head count that the material lends itself to the television series treatment (Showtime is developing one), since every character comes equipped with an exploitable back story. Take Jimmy: His newfound Buddhism depends on coaching from a woman who communicates via instant message. There is indeed something instant — hilarity — in the idea of spiritual enlightenment from a woman who advises that Jimmy place his troubling thoughts inside imaginary pink bubbles and calls herself DharmaGirl on Gmail.
“Profundity can be found in the strangest places,” DharmaGirl counsels. “Everyone makes fun of fortune cookies. I don’t know why.”
“The Angry Buddhist” approaches all its characters with reliable misanthropy (not for nothing does Larry David provide this book’s most visible blurb). And its story unfolds with dexterous ease. Even a minor figure like Hard’s wife, Vonda Jean, who wears “an expression as nurturing as an oil spill” and always leaves the television on “so she’ll have something else to listen to in the event Hard starts talking,” is made funny and sharp. The book’s women are more cartoonish than its men. But the competition is pretty fierce.
“The Angry Buddhist” makes a fine high-end beach read for election season. But, perhaps surprisingly, the least interesting story element in “The Angry Buddhist” is the anonymous political blogger who provides a running commentary on campaign issues. The blogger tethers this otherwise escapist fable to real life.