By Kendall Merriam
Medvedb’s Journal is, as its author notes in an acknowledgement, “surely one of the strangest books in Maine.” With the recent publication of this expanded edition of Kendall Merriam’s 30-year-old work, this odd book has gotten even odder.
I suppose one would call Medvedb’s Journal a novel, though there’s no plot, hardly any dialogue, and really only one character: Medvedb, a very horny, schizophrenic poet who thinks he’s both a bear and the president of the United States. In any case, it’s a novel approach to storytelling.
Merriam’s book is a rambling series of anecdotes and observations about Medvedb, who you quickly begin to suspect is the author’s alter ego. In a new introduction by, of all people, Gunnar Hansen (a.k.a. the guy who played Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the actor and writer says Merriam has “caught Medvedb’s digressive mind, allowing an idea that pops into the end of a paragraph to dance off somewhere else for a while.”
Indeed, for much of the book, paragraphs begin with ruminations on whatever person, place or concept was mentioned toward the end of the preceding paragraph. This stream-of-consciousness style can get annoying, but once you realize the story isn’t going anywhere, you can sit back, relax, and wait for the next crazy thing to crawl across the page.
You never have to wait long.
For example, early on, a reference to the game of polo leads to mention of an imprisoned Russian poet, which in turn segues into a paragraph about Stalin and Hitler, in which the German dictator is said to have been given “a life-sized Faberge Ostrich Egg filled with a model of Berchtesgaden done in gold melted from the teeth of 39-year-old Jewish virgins.”
“None of this made sense to Medvedb,” Merriam writes, “but he knew it was true because he had read it four times in different spy novels.” (This leads to a line about how Medvedb once wrote two chapters of a “feminist spy novel,” but “none of the women who read it liked it.”)
Female readers may get a bit creeped out by Medvedb, who wears his lasciviousness on his sleeve. But it’s also made clear that this crazy, rumpled bear-man never had much luck with the ladies, and is physically, if not mentally, true to his wife, Axis.
“Axis is addicted to picking out her white hairs, to George Sand, to Salems, to orgasms, to orange juice, to cheap chic and celery in her Bloody Marys,” Merriam writes, sparking one of the book’s numerous laugh-out-loud moments. Another arrives with the fleeting appearance of Al the Jesuit, “a very good thinker on religious subjects and the only one who has ever bested him was Axis who proved the nonexistence of God after Al the Jesuit had drunk a six-pack of Heineken Dark.”
There’s plenty of other funny stuff, though much of it is muted by the strangeness that pervades the narrative and its lack of structure. The closest this “journal” comes to telling a coherent story is in Chapter Three, “Medvedb Takes A Trip,” about a vacation in Paris. Merriam sets up the idea that his character is going to attempt to swing across the front of Notre Dame on a rope, but like the idea itself, the set-up goes nowhere (despite having smuggled rope in his suitcase, Medvedb never even begins to attempt the stunt, and it’s not clear why he abandons his mad plan).
This short book originally ended after four chapters, and did so gracefully. After years being thrown in jails and mental wards, Medvedb comes to terms with the idea that he’ll never be famous and finds satisfaction in being recognized as a poet by neighbors in his small town. Thirty years later, in 2010, Merriam was named Rockland’s first poet laureate, and the expanded version of this book was completed.
The new fifth chapter is, and feels, tacked-on, though it’s remarkable how Merriam managed to preserve his style and tone across three decades. Toward the end, Medvedb looks forward to getting feedback from a shrink on a speech he wrote titled, “Why I am a Paranoid Schizophrenic Manic Depressive Bi-Polar Patient And How I Got That Way and What Are Highly Paid Professionals Going To Do About It?”
An amusing afterword penned in ’09 by fellow writer and friend Stephen Petroff caps off this new edition. The contributions by Petroff and Hansen (who wrote poetry in Maine during the post-Chainsaw ’70s and published the first chapter of Medvedb back in the day) make this edition seem a bit like one of those Greatest Hits collections by a rock band that reunites to record a couple new tracks for the occasion. (Only, in this case, the new stuff doesn’t suck.)
“He was not a good writer,” Merriam writes of Medvedb. “No, he was too aberrant for that but he did produce a few little oddities that certain collectors savored with a taste for the obscure.”
— Chris Busby