With Going to See the Elephant, first-time novelist Rodes Fishburne has created a fantastical world that exists in the middle of San Francisco. Featuring characters that are frequently over-the-top and a plot that covers everything from the world of journalism to mad-science weather manipulation, the book is a canvas for Fishburne's colorful imagination. But the cartoonish images and wild storyline aren't all the reader gets from the tale; by the time the novel ends, one thing that stands out is its real, very human sentiment.
As the book opens, we meet Slater Brown, an overeager and laughably naive 25-year-old with one goal: to be recognized as the greatest writer in the world. He has come from the East Coast to San Francisco in order to realize that goal, although he has no real idea how to do so. Scribbling furiously in his notebook as he scours the city for inspiration, dressed absurdly in a linen suit and Panama hat, he is the perfect parody of the affected, starry-eyed young scribe found in many a graduate school English class.
Needing a paycheck, Slater applies to struggling local newspaper The Morning Trumpet, only to hilariously bomb his first assignment. But after he chances upon a resident "answer man" who leaves him with a very special parting gift, Slater is suddenly San Fran's scoop magnet.
As Slater's sensational stories singlehandedly revive the Trumpet and his celebrity skyrockets, the reader is introduced to a rich cast of supporting characters, including the crooked mayor out to destroy Slater after he digs up a damaging story on him (his emotional overeating binge and enormous weight gain following the story's release is a comic highlight); the scientist whose weather-changing experiments could give Slater his best story yet; and the gorgeous female chess prodigy who ultimately changes the direction of Slater's life.
The book's many layers could use some fine-tuning, and the dramatic climactic scene is something of an eye-roller, but it is refreshing to see Fishburne reveal the more grounded, less outrageous aspects of each character as the story's surprisingly simple message is uncovered. It will be interesting to see where he might go with a second novel.
Rebecca Stropoli writes from Brooklyn, New York.