By Daniel Green
Readers encountering David Ohle’s work for the first time through his most recent novel, The Death of a Character (2021), will indeed find the depiction promised in its title, but those familiar with Ohle’s previous books, especially his first and eventual cult favorite, Motorman (1972), will know that the character whose dying the narrative chronicles is the protagonist of that novel as well. Called simply Moldenke, he makes additional appearances in the long-delayed follow-up to Motorman, The Age of Sinatra (2004), as well as its successors, The Pisstown Chaos (2008) and The Old Reactor (2013). (In The Pisstown Chaos, Moldenke turns up as a minor character in a story focusing on others, but The Death of a Character marks the fourth time his picaresque existence has been the focus of an Ohle novel.) Moldenke has been the principal conduit to the singularly bizarre and often grotesque world Ohle invokes in his fiction, and thus his demise seems more a consummation of that world’s creation, its full achievement perhaps, than merely the portrayal of a fictional character’s death.
To some extent, however, Moldenke in this novel is not exactly the same Moldenke featured in Motorman (or each of the sequels, for that matter), which makes The Death of a Character comprehensible enough to the uninitiated reader, but also potentially conveys an incomplete impression not just of Moldenke as a character (or characters), but of the nature of what became a multi-book project expressing a vision of an alternative reality that incorporates enough fractured and rearranged pieces of our already wrecked world that it seems intelligible, if freakishly distorted. Like Moldenke himself, this reality is never quite the same from book to book, although its oddities are generally of a similar sort and the discontinuities seem part of the process of decay and instability its inhabitants experience: At some point in the future (how far or near is never quite specified), America has degenerated—perhaps with the help of an external catastrophe—into a conglomeration of what people remain, concentrated in a few scattered places in what might be the Midwest (the names of these places vary) and reduced to a fairly primitive state of existence, although some vestiges of the old technology linger (a decrepit nuclear reactor, a barely functioning mechanical “pedway”). The novels centering on Moldenke generally portray him attempting simply to survive the circumstances in which he finds himself, to evade or elude the capricious forces arrayed against him. The Pisstown Chaos is a departure from this pattern only in that these same conditions afflict the Ball family rather than Moldenke.
These forces include, in addition to the entropy besetting the remnants of a degraded culture, the explicit dictates of what passes for authority in this ramshackle civilization. This authority is at times invested in a government of sorts (mostly dominated by a single autocratic figure), but essentially it is claimed by whoever can seize it and maintained through nonsensical and arbitrary edicts and directives that ensure obedience by keeping the people as confused and unsettled as possible. (Literally unsettled: often the population is compelled to relocate or individuals are consigned to detention facilities on the flimsiest, often quite absurd, pretenses—at one point in the The Old Reactor, Moldenke is shuffled off to a prison camp for defecating in a graveyard.) Control is further reinforced in The Age of Sinatra and The Pisstown Chaos (and now in The Death of a Character as well) by the imposition of a “great forgetting,” whereby history is erased, keeping everyone in a perpetual present haunted by vestiges of the past, which are vaguely known but about which most people ultimately know nothing. In The Blast (2014), a non-Moldenke novella, nevertheless quite clearly in the same fictional milieu, the protagonist, a boy named Wencel, a student at “the only school still open,” is taught the version of history that remains available, a scrambled-up construction anchored in figures from popular culture (“the age of Sinatra,” “the age of Nerds”) and fourth-hand distortions of events surrounding the Kennedy administration. (In another class, Wencel studies “Emoticonics,” an emoticon script underlying Emo, “the language of our ancestors.”)
The Blast also comes as close to an explanation of the source of the prevailing conditions in Ohle’s fictional world as we find in his published work, or at least the conditions specifically depicted in this short novel. As its title betokens, at some point in the recent past, a terrible explosion, referred to simply as “the blast,” occurred—recently enough that some people, including Wencel’s father, have some recollection of it. It is of course tempting to conclude that this was a nuclear blast, but Ohle merely leaves this as an implication. Neither The Blast nor any of the other books could really be adequately described as post-Apocalyptic narratives. They don’t seem to depict a future world to which our own present is possibly heading so much as create a facsimile of a future that figures elements of present reality into an absurdly sorry excuse for a social order. If they are science fiction, it is a reverse-image rendition of science fiction that inverts the standard association of SF with futuristic advanced knowledge and technologies into an entropic civilization reduced to crank radios and pedal cars. One of Wencel’s teachers presents the class with a drawing representing what she believes a motor may have looked like, prompting Wencel to inquire about “flying motors”: “Like the one you drew, except in the sky?”
Although it introduces us to Moldenke, as well as other characters who will appear in subsequent books, and establishes the signature impassive tone with which Ohle’s narratives are related, Motorman offers a different, while still profoundly aberrant, sort of invented world. Here the future has become more synthetic than dilapidated, although Moldenke still encounters plenty of ruination. This world has telephones, motorcars, and electricity—Moldenke throughout the first part of the novel is menaced over the phone by a man named Bunce, whose identity and authority remain nebulous but whom Moldenke fears, nonetheless—but when Moldenke decides to leave the apartment in which he has concealed himself and to meet up with Dr. Burnheart (a beneficent counterpart to Bunce, although just as shadowy), he and we have a more sustained encounter with the deformed environment he inhabits, as a picaresque journey ensues.
Soon after he begins his journey, Moldenke contemplates his surroundings:
He sat on the seawall, chewing stonepicks, and watched the first artificial sun break apart and burn out. A slow, dry rain of white ash persisted through summerfall. By winter, a second was up, blinding to look at and almost warm enough.
It turns out that in Moldenke’s world there are a number of additional suns and moons (perhaps up to seven of the latter), which appear at irregular intervals (a steady stream of weather reports attempts to keep track, although apparently Bunce is able to manufacture the weather he wants, instructing the “weatherman” to send out the appropriate forecast.) This augmentation of climate conditions is attributed to government scientists, although its purpose—for either the government or the scientists—is never made exactly clear, but then the purpose of the government itself is not at all evident, either. As in all of the subsequent novels as well, government is something effected through whim. In Motorman, it would seem, technology has not regressed to a derelict state, but it does seem to be deployed in an indiscriminate, uncontrolled way that seems as senseless as it does sinister.
The essential absurdity of Moldenke’s reality is further manifested in his own personal circumstances. Apparently the victim of heart disease (in other of the novels he is afflicted with various digestive problems), Moldenke is the recipient of a transplant, but he has been given not one heart but four, and they are animal hearts, not human, the operations performed by the same Dr. Burnheart. Again the motivation behind this procedure remains murky—Moldenke may just be the victim of human experimentation, although he is grateful enough to Dr. Burnheart for the service. Moldenke is also a veteran of a “Mock War,” a war in name only in which one might play one’s part by “volunteering for injury,” as Moldenke does,
writing his name down on a piece of paper and dropping it into a metal box outside the semi-Colonel’s office. At morning meal the day’s injury list was read. . .When they read his name he reported to Building D, stood in line at the door. Every minute or so the line shortened by one. The mock soldier in front of Moldenke turned and said, “I’m proud that I gave for my country. He opened the fly of his trench pants and showed Moldenke a headless crank.
Fortunately for Moldenke, he is able to do his part for the cause by enduring only a fractured kneecap.
Such madness is native to Ohle’s fictive world, conveyed through the sort of deadpan expository prose characterizing a passage such as this. Ohle’s fiction accentuates narrative—description is evocative and acute, but generally concise, without forced lyricism—although formally Motorman, as well as the subsequent novels, can also be fragmented and discursive. Motorman, for example, incorporates numerous letters, both from and to Moldenke (his interlocutors tend to refer to him as “Dink” or “Dinky”), but they work either to fill in gaps in the ongoing narrative of Moldenke’s adventures or to provide suitable context. What happens (or what has happened) remains the focus of attention, even if what happens is goofy or preposterous. Ohle’s narrative manner seems most influenced by Kafka, except that where Kafka’s impassive narrator leaves an impression of foreboding and inscrutability, Ohle’s produces something closer to farce. Moldenke seems finally a type of antihero: an almost hapless figure whose senseless circumstances make us want to sympathize with his plight, while those very circumstances make it virtually impossible to conceive he might be able to overcome them.
While in the following novels featuring him as protagonist Moldenke is still a comic character (made comic by the lunacy of his surroundings), he is less purely the victim of a system uniquely subjecting him to its insanity. In The Age of Sinatra, Moldenke must again negotiate the lunacies, but their source is somewhat more identifiable in the reigning political system, headed up by one Michael Ratt, the President of what remains of the U. S. Moldenke, in fact, rather involuntarily becomes involved in a plot to assassinate Ratt, for which Moldenke is assigned complete blame by the powers that be when the plan actually succeeds. (Moldenke almost avoids punishment but comes up one “waiver” short—waivers are granted arbitrarily by the government and exempt perpetrators of crime from responsibility for their actions—when he goes before the judge, who sentences him to a prison camp, after all.) This wider focus on the visible social and political structure in which Moldenke abides perhaps removes from the follow-ups to Motorman the mixture of hilarity and disquiet that emerges in the tone of the novel as an effect of the opacity of motive and causality, but it also makes the follow-ups more than simply sequels to the first novel, attempts to re-create a “cult classic” thirty years later.
The Age of Sinatra leaves Moldenke in essentially the same position in which he found himself in Motorman, however—that is, in ambiguous circumstances and still in a state of radical uncertainty about his future well-being. The same is true of The Old Reactor, which has Moldenke sent to a prison camp that inverts our customary conception of a prison. The facility is actually an entire town, Altobello, and the prisoners are sentenced to be “free”: There is no confinement, no oversight by prison authorities, no institutional structure at all. Prisoners are literally condemned to be free—a telling comment, perhaps, on the highly regulated society outside the prison, one that would conceive of life inside such a prison as its opposite and therefore punishment. Most of the inhabitants of Altobello seem better off then they would have back in Bunkerville, the locus of the social order outside, but they have been conditioned thoroughly enough by the irrationality of that order that they can’t quite appreciate it. (The slop they have for food seems delicious to them.) Moldenke, in fact, seems to appreciate it, more than the others, but even he is concerned to get back to the house in Bunkerville he has inherited from his aunt, where he finds, after Bunkerville itself has been “liberated,” that the situation is very far from liberating.
The Death of a Character literally brings Moldenke to the end of his journey, and, to the extent we are to perceive continuity in Moldenke’s portrayal across the Moldenke saga, clearly he has found neither reward nor enlightenment. The very first paragraph succinctly evokes Moldenke’s predicament as he approaches what will be the terminal phase of his life, as well as the sort of world he now faces:
On a scorching winter afternoon, Moldenke stopped at the Dew Drop Inn for a Chinese whiskey. He’d been limping along China Way, a newly named street, wondering what to do with the remainder of his life. The sound of distant riots rattled his half-deaf ears and the air smelled of sulfur. He’d been homeless now for months, sleeping in the park with other jobless, hungry souls, spending his days in the library reading and using the toilet when it was working.
The details here give us a vivid impression of the scene and situation Moldenke confronts, but they also reiterate for readers not as familiar with either the Moldenke novels or Davie Ohle’s work as a whole some of the more predominant motifs and conceits to be found in Ohle’s fiction. We are immediately made aware of the fundamentally absurd conditions that prevail in Moldenke’s world—“a scorching winter afternoon,” one of many manifestations of arbitrary weather phenomena that plague Ohle’s characters—and the sound of the distant riots further signals the ubiquitous threat of instability that seems always present and serves for the characters as a constant source of reference (the “Pisstown Chaos”). Food and drink (usually of some very bizarre and/or repulsive variety) are a special focus of attention in Ohles’s fiction—a dissertation could be written about Ohle’s use of food in these novels as an objective correlative of cultural devolution—and some such establishment as the “Dew Drop Inn” is a focal point of communal experience. The source of authority is usually undefined and precarious, so that now when Moldenke finds himself drinking “Chinese whiskey” and traveling on “China Way,” it would seem that a more determinate sort of regime has come to be in charge.
This is indeed the case, as we discover when Moldenke enters the Dew Drop, encountering a “Chinese official lost in her own thoughts, jotting notes in a daybook.” Moldenke’s zone in dystopic quasi-America has been occupied by the Chinese—who claim it has been ceded to them voluntarily—although very little that is culturally or politically “Chinese” (not even the food) is attributed to the representatives of the Chinese administration, mostly soldiers, who interact with Moldenke and his companions. They are mostly the latest representatives of preemptory and indiscriminate power that operates in Ohle’s fiction, ultimately working to inflict gratuitous hardship. Perhaps the domination by China in this latest rendering of Ohle’s fictional landscape is inevitably a commentary on the dynamics of current geopolitical arrangements, but as with Ohle’s larger fictional project as a whole, neither forecasting the future nor critiquing the present seem the likely motivation for the details of setting or the cast of characters. The Chinese play the same role as Bunce or President Ratt or the mad religious leader, and their presence contributes to the effort to defamiliarize the iconography of an America that has mutated into a funhouse world of the writer’s own invention.
The Death of a Character also resembles Ohle’s other books in that it is a variation on the road novel. Moldenke determines to avoid the local turmoil and travel “south,” to a cabin he believes he has inherited. The bartender in the Dew Drop suggests that Moldenke take with him a “neutrodyne” named Wheaton. Neutrodynes are humanoid beings (perhaps alien, although again Ohle retains a degree of ambiguity by leaving their origins murky) that alternate in their roles in Ohle’s fiction with other similarly quasi human creatures: jellyheads, Stinkers, and necronauts. All of these groups live among the human characters, generally looked on by humans as “other” and treated accordingly (although the necronauts are also considered somewhat spooky—dead people still alive). It, too, is tempting to take such creatures as the product of human manipulation (or at least as a way of representing human tampering), the exact disaster or technology gone awry long erased through a “forgetting,” but Ohle maintains a consistent weirdness in his work by withholding explanation, here leaving the neutrodynes and jellyheads to be just weird.
Wheaton is probably the most individuated neutrodyne in Ohle’s fiction, although paradoxically he becomes a persuasive character by devoting himself to Moldenke’s service: Wheaton is “programmed” to serve human beings (the source of the programming again mysterious), and he does indeed vigilantly attend to Moldenke’s needs, from providing food to assisting with Moldenke’s less than efficient toilet habits. Wheaton appears to be without emotions, although after he and Moldenke arrive at the family cabin Wheaton meets a female neutrodyne, Darleen, who shortly after moves in with them and, in the parlance most often used in Ohle’s world, they “mate.” However, their mating also has a utilitarian purpose: it seems that neut women give birth almost immediately after becoming pregnant, and she and Wheaton begin to make babies continually, Darleen selling them to the Chinese. They do this in part to raise the money they need to keep the household functioning, but they are able to carry out this rather mercenary task because they are less subject to emotional attachment than humans.
Nevertheless, Darleen and Wheaton do manage to keep the household functioning, although, being neutrodynes, they don’t require the gratitude of either Moldenke or Bertie (a woman Wheaton and Moldenke encounter on their trip south and invite to live with them), who, being human, don’t offer it. While it certainly could not be said that neutrodynes such as Wheaton or Darleen are exemplary moral beings (as defined by human standards to be sure, and perhaps Ohle’s depiction of neutrodynes and the other non-human beings in his fiction alongside human beings and the wreckage they have made of their world has the ultimate effect of travestying those standards), they surely do emerge from The Death of a Character as more resolute and self-possessed than the human characters. As the Chinese gradually become less and less tolerant of the household’s presence on the property—they do not acknowledge Moldenke’s claim on it, but for a while allow Moldenke and company to remain in the cabin—Wheaton and Darleen, with the help of a local hunter, Ernie, who has long sustained the property in the absence of other residents, continue to provide themselves, Moldenke, and Bertie with the means of subsistence.
Bertie is a character first introduced in Motorman, where she is known as “Cock Roberta” and is nominally Moldenke’s girlfriend, even though they are rarely in each other’s company. While in The Death of a Character she does help to maintain Moldenke’s spirits enough for him to persevere for a while, Bertie doesn’t really play a memorable role in the novel, although her abrupt and entirely coincidental encounter with Moldenke as he and Wheaton are on their pedal bus trip south is one of the more absurdly amusing moments in the story:
“It’s me. You haven’t forgotten, have you? We were sweethearts? So odd to run into you after all this time.”
Moldenke turned further despite the pain in his neck. “Roberta. I remember.”
“I go by Bertie now. You don’t look well, Moldenke.”
There are strong women characters in Ohle’s fiction (Moldenke’s mother, Agnes, Ophelia Balls), but Bertie/Roberta mostly just declines along with Moldenke.
That decline structures the novel’s episodic plot. Eventually, the Chinese decide that the four occupants must leave, the cabin itself to be demolished. What’s left of Moldenke’s health begins to ebb. (“I don’t feel good,” Moldenke tells Bertie. “You’ve never felt good,” she replies. “I feel bad, then.”) In accordance with Moldenke’s wishes, before he finally succumbs the others take him to a tree and leave him in its branches. There is little dignity in Moldenke’s death—on the way to the cart for the trip to the tree, Wheaton drops Moldenke into the mud—but being placed in the tree while alive does allow him to avoid the final indignity of Wheaton’s posthumous hatred: neuts despise the dead, and are known to assault dead bodies. “Goodbye, all,” Moldenke calls out weakly, as his own funeral procession walks back to the cabin.
If Moldenke’s death seems to be in some measure an ignominious one, we must remind ourselves that what is depicted in this novel is the death of a character, a character whose fictional life has indeed been extended now over multiple installments over a wide expanse of time, thus perhaps indeed bestowing on him (for both readers and the author) more “life” than a typical protagonist. Readers of all four of the Moldenke books likely would find his death especially meaningful—although that it verges on the farcical will likely not come as a shock or surprise. In this way, at least, The Death of a Character leaves an impression of Moldenke and his world entirely consistent with and representative of their importance in Ohle’s fiction as a whole. Still, the Moldenke books play their part in the formation of that larger work, and thus it would be worth readers’ time to read not only Motorman as well as its direct spin-offs featuring Moldenke, but all of Ohle’s published work—including City Moon (2018), ostensibly a compilation of the issues of a satirical newspaper published for a number of years in Lawrence, Kansas that Ohle co-edited, but that in its remodeled, collage-like form still integrates well with the more conventionally composed novels and novellas to help evoke his surpassingly strange fictional world. Fifty years after the appearance of Motorman, the strangeness only seems all the more believable.
Daniel Green is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism and The Art of Disturbance: On the Novels of James Purdy. His literary criticism has appeared in Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, American Book Review, Kenyon Review, The Antioch Review, The Georgia Review, Agni, Full Stop, Splice, Music and Literature, and many other periodicals.