In these postmodernist episodes of high comedy, Don Webb turns Ovid's classic work, The Metamorphosis, on its head. Awarded the 1988 Illinois State University/Fiction Collective Prize through a nationwide fiction competition, Webb's first book of fiction, Uncle Ovid's Exercise Book, explores the theme of change in hitherto unimagined manifestations—from the everyday to the mysterious to the miraculous. These eight dozen "metamorphoses" are widely funny, profound, and—like change itself—always surprising.
With rare originality and breadth, Webb draws upon Egyptian mythology, molecular biology, classical poetry, contemporary pop culture, literary theory, Eastern mysticism, and science fiction, composing them into an offbeat fugue on the theme of transformation.
"Metamorphosis No. 39" resurrects the ancient Egyptian gods, Set, Toth, and Osiris, who return to America to mastermind a plot to alter contemporary consciousness. Their scheme includes the broadcast of subliminal archetypal images during returns of "I Love Lucy." In a later metamorphosis, another ancient god—Dionysius—returns to modern day Atlantic City to recruit winos for a new band of satyrs.
Ancient gods are not the only agents of change. Metamorphosis also spreads to the White House in an episode describing the clandestine life of the president's drug supplier—who risks death to satisfy the chief executive's taste for organic hallucinogens.
A hilarious New Age western saga unfolds in "Metamorphosis No.5" W.B. Porter, the "Last of the Singing Cowboys" —a hero with a degree in chemical engineering and a proficiency on the sitar—foils the Uzi-toting Mendoza gang—"tough hombres schooled in the Fourteen Mysteries of Toltec Sorcery"—in their attempt to pull a heist on a condo construction project.
This theme of transformation extends even to the farming narrative of UOEB itself, which at one point unexpectedly becomes the diary of an Englishwoman who is held captive in a potting shed by a maniacal pastor.
These variations on a theme are sometimes hilarious, sometimes cryptic, sometimes curiously moving—and always disturbingly provocative. With his hat off to Ovid, Don Webb pulls together high-spirited wit, eclecticism, and sheer inventiveness to make Uncle Ovid's Exercise Book a richly comic, absorbing, and singular work of a new order.
"[These] metamorphoses are bright, quick, certain, and unfailingly demonic … Webb's stylistic virtuosity is amazing both in the sureness of his parodies and homage's and in the extraordinary resolution he manages in imagery and story throughout the book. It is a strange, funny, frightening wonder, a Saturday kid's show for grownups." —Michael Anania, 1988
"Uncle Ovid's Exercise Book is a lively Book of the Dead for the 1990s, chanted by a chorus of uniquely demented voices. Imagine Sir James George Frazier meeting William S. Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft for a quick round of musical whoopee cushions. Don Webb's wit, erudition, and imagination seem to have no limits as he pulls (at least) 97 different rabbits out of a single hat. He creates entire worlds with a few luminous details, then shatters them to glittering fragments. I wish I could write this well." —Lewis Shiner, author of Deserted Cities of the Heart
Twenty minutes after dawn W.B. and Marco rode in. Marco's chestnut gelding's hide was black with sweat, but W.B.'s Palomino stallion seemed bright and fresh. The boys stopped at a Winchell's for doughnuts. The counterman said, "Y'all just ride in?"
Macro said, "We heard the call. We came from the badlands."
The doughnutman didn't seem to hear.
Marco said, "From the malapais, the alkali flats, the poverty flats, the wasteland, the filth land, the barrens."
The doughnutman still didn't notice.
W.B. said, "Yep"
The doughnutman said, "Oh what'll you have?"
Marco learned Second Banana Rule No. Twenty Seven,
"No one listens to the sidekick."
There's a corollary to this rule that doesn't occur in this story, so I'm passing it along for your information: "They listen to the sidekick if he's forming a rescue party for the boss." I could've created a situation for that rule to show up, but I reckoned you'd want the story just like it happened. Natural like.
Uncle Ovid's Exercise Book
Uncle Ovid's Exercise Book