The prologue of Andrei Codrescu’s newest novel opens with a familiar premise: a man makes a deal with the devil. But from there, it kaleidoscopes into a dynamic, thoughtful riff on architecture, America, pop psychology, poetry, corporate culture, and motivational speaking. Far from being a meditation on good vs. evil, Wakefield uses the deal only as a device with which to explore the book’s tapestry of themes.
Andrei Codrescu’s devil has little to do with the biblical Old Scratch; he’s more akin to William Blake’s notion of Satan as a motivating force, as the source of creativity and action. But this Satan is also a sad and harried little devil. Corporate shakedowns in Hades have left him tired and frustrated with his lot—in short, he’s bored. It’s because of this boredom that the titular Wakefield is able to strike his deal. At the devil’s signal, he will have one year to find his “true life,” to achieve some semblance of authenticity in a world where not even Satan is safe from the encroachments of the bland, sunny neo-bureaucracy of modern American business.
It falls to Wakefield—we never learn his first name—to listen for the devil’s “starter pistol,” the signal that his year of searching must begin. In the meantime, he carves out his living as a curious sort of motivational speaker, half improv beat poet, half architectural lecturer, the kind of profession that, while it lives outside the gray confines of Corporate America, could not exist without it. Codrescu’s got a fine ear for the absurdities of the corporate ethos, without straying into Dilbert-esque parody; Wakefield’s audience is peopled with actual human beings, not drones, and he interacts with them as such.
A portrait of a changing and troubled country, Wakefield is also a study of a man—Wakefield’s adventures while he waits for his signal lead him ever deeper into himself. His name is drawn from a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, about a clerk who disappears for 20 years, only to be discovered in an apartment not far from his house, doing nothing but hiding from his “real” life. Codrescu—whose lit-reference chops get plenty of exercise here—has given his Wakefield a passion for hiding as well; his childhood passion for squirreling himself away matures into the habit of hiding from his own self and life, until the devil sticks his hoof in.
Fans of Codrescu’s NPR work will be unable to read this without hearing his Eastern European lilt, and it adds another pleasurable dimension to an already immensely enjoyable book—as whimsical and lightly profound as his radio essays, Wakefield is a delight.