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THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT
1982

Book cover artist not credited.
Review © 1998 by Thomas M. Wagner.

The first thought that pops into mind when thinking about this novel is that it is every bit as "different" and original as its title character. Indeed, with the heavily commercialized, multibook-series-driven nature of SF and fantasy publishing today, it's difficult to imagine a novel this daring and unique finding a publisher now. Hell, it makes me shed a tear in memory of what a fine and underappreciated imprint Pocket's Timescape was.

The Blind Men and the Elephant is a memorable, trenchant exercise, an acerbic black comedy that dares to make us wonder what it really is that qualifies us as human. Though the novel's last few chapters go overboard in the wackiness department, and its climax is somewhat inevitable, overall Griffin has written a smart, remarkable story unlike any you're likely to see in SF for some time, and it is worth the effort it takes to hunt it down in used bookstores. I fear that if I still didn't happen to have my copy I bought when it was first released, I'd be shit outta luck. This book seems rare indeed. Ah well, that's part of the point of this site, to unearth the obscure.

Durwood Leffingwell is a pathetic excuse for a man, living in a dried-up marriage and working as a weatherman for a two-bit UHF station in a little Massachusetts town. One day while his station is doing its usual inept job covering a parade, Leffingwell becomes aware of a creature called the Elephant Man, who has been brought to town by his "keeper," who has been hauling him around as a sideshow attraction for a little while now. Leffingwell finds the E.M. dumped into his care, and the unfortunate little fellow, despite his hideous deformities, proves a nice enough character, intelligent, talkative, with a heavy TV habit. Leffingwell's wife is none too happy about having this apparition in her home, but Leffingwell has hit upon the idea that E.M. is the ticket out of their dead-end existence, and he formulates a plan to direct a "human interest" story, followed by a full-fledged documentary, on his disfigured charge.

At first the plan is a runaway success, as network interest and cash donations (with which Leffingwell promptly buys a Mercedes) pour in. But E.M. is having some disturbing thoughts of his own. Bizarre, disjointed memories — of labs, orphanages, the nun whom he thinks is his mother — torment him. And as both Leffingwell and E.M. try to unravel the mystery enshrouding E.M.'s past, the truth turns out to be even uglier than E.M. himself.

The premise of The Blind Men and the Elephant may be pretty original, but the execution of the story does rely on some time-tested formulas. Leffingwell originally intends only to exploit E.M. to get rich, but they ultimately develop a fast friendship. Similarly, hints of shadowy, sinister government experiments may have been a bit more off-the-wall in the SF of 1982. Today, though, such delicious paranoia is part of our pop-culture fabric thanks to The X-Files. (Come to think of it, this novel could have been adapted with some success as an X-Files episode — that is, if Terry Gilliam directed it.)

Nevertheless, what BM&E has lost in freshness and uniqueness over the years, it retains in Griffin's brutal and hilarious wit. The book is chock full of unforgettable setpieces and outrageous supporting characters, and the point is not lost that each of these people is, in his/her own way, every bit as ugly and deformed as E.M., with lives and values that have become twisted out of all recognizable parameters of goodness by media and television and the illusory happiness they sell. Several scenes are just pain laugh-out-loud funny, and Griffin has an expert touch in balancing the comedy with the expected pathos. Do yourself a favor and find The Blind Men and the Elephant. It will add a little ugly beauty to your life.