Wakefield – Andrei Codrescu

Wakefield(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2004)

One day the Devil shows up. “I’ve come to take you.” 

With this casual ease, Andrei Codrescu’s opening line could quickly be mistaken for a joke with a bad punchline about being married or spending time with the Pope, but don’t be fooled. There’s comedy in this book, but never at the expense of stale one-liners or crass stereotypes.

Wakefield is living out his middle-aged years as a divorced man-turned-bachelor and impromptu motivational speaker, when the devil appears to him and announces the end of his life. However, Wakefield bargains with the devil (yes, like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Wakefield), and is given one year to find an authentic, true life. 

Codrescu starts off at a great pace, giving full-bodied characters that charm us and tease us and are a pleasure to spend time with. Wakefield has three trips scheduled, where he will be a guest speaker at the first two and attend a party at the third event. At each event, Wakefield experiences a world of different people and speculates if this is what an authentic life could be, letting the reader in on the private joke about our expectations of authenticity versus our shallow and commercial appetites.

The joke is taken to the next level by the fact that Wakefield’s impromptu speeches are pulled out of thin air just moments before his lectures, and he never knows what he is going to say. This leads to him spewing out philosophies and preaching to his audiences, about what the world ought to be, and how it’s all our faults that we’re letting real and true lives go by. Suspicions creep in while reading this, though, about whether the entire book may be an impromptu thought uplled out of thin air, one that just rambles on without any direction or purpose.

Among the suspicions, though, there is an overwhelming appreciation for the spectacular writing Codrescu provides. Beautiful, poetic lines bloom on the pages every now and then, just as small and true moments in Wakefield’s life burst forward. Imagination is paid homage in every way, and is a lovely muse to watch and adore.

Codrescu’s treatment of women is also a source of intrigue. While the religious saturation of the book can’t help but be noticed (the devil is indeed in the details), there is the overplayed role of women as something between Eve seducing Adam over and over again with the devil’s instigation, and as the gentle and kind Virgin Mary that Wakefield wants to protect and love from afar.

This book makes no secret about its style: think about Wakefield as a roadtrip. It’s more about the journey than the destination. With that mindset, this book won’t disappoint.