DeMarinis keeps his dark brand of humor

Behind Rick DeMarinis' mild-mannered facade is a self-described "scheming terrorist," a writer with a bent toward the bizarre and a sense of humor broad enough to encompass sex, the perils of technology and middle-aged men, of which he is one.

"I don't laugh at people," he says. "I laugh with them. … I'm a snot but I include myself."

Indeed, Guido Tarkenen, the hapless hard-drinking, pill-popping protagonist of his new novel "A Clod of Wayward Marl" (a title from Shakespeare), shares traits with the author, including his Finnish-Italian heritage. He's also a writer teaching at a university in a southwest Texas town - a page, perhaps, right out of the life of DeMarinis, a retired professor from the University of Texas at El Paso who has long kept a home in Missoula.

Guido, however, writes crime novels, a genre DeMarinis has never tackled until now. And "A Clod of Wayward Marl," his first attempt, is as much a spoof of the genre as anything else. Instead of sniffing out mysteries a la' "Murder, She Wrote," Guido finds himself involved against his will in solving a series of murders at La Siberia Tech while grieving over the end of his marriage and trying hard to ignore the cries of his inflamed prostate gland.

"This guy's got a lot of baggage," DeMarinis says. "I tried to create an interesting image of an anti-hero."

Anti-heroes apparently have fallen out of favor in the publishing world, however, placing DeMarinis in the odd position of having six previous novels, five short-story collections and several prestigious literary awards to his credit but no one to publish his new book.

An editor at Norton who suggested in 1992 that DeMarinis try a "techno thriller" turned down the finished product after getting a thumbs-down from the publisher's marketing department, he says.

"Who controls publishing now is not the editors," says DeMarinis. "Marketing controls publishing."

Since finishing the book in 1994, DeMarinis has been shopping for a publisher - "begging," he calls it. He found success with Dennis McMillan, a Tucson-based publisher whose clients include Missoula crime writers James Crumley and Jon A. Jackson. The book is available in a limited edition of 1,000.

True to assertions he makes in his nonfiction book, "The Art and Craft of the Short Story," DeMarinis says he never sits down to write with any intentions except, simply, to write. If "Marl" seems to be a send-up of crime novels, it's pure accident: "Authors who write satire have very serious agendas disguised as comedy. I write comedy disguised as satire. I don't have any bones to pick."

Yet elements of the plot make definite statements about the way technology is changing our world - not necessarily for the better. The tension in "Marl" revolves around plans to eliminate the English department from La Siberia Tech and beef up the technology program, a situation some in Missoula might find all too familiar.

"All over the country the liberal arts are hurting," DeMarinis says. "I heard a dean once say, 'What does a college need a philosophy department for?' It's become that critical.

A side plot in "Marl" involves a virtual-reality machine that offers a life literally too good to be true. "Some will go into the virtual environment and come out only to eat," an executive predicts smugly.

"It's already happening," the author says, offering the example of youngsters and computer games. "They lock themselves up for hours at a time."

Although he insists he's not anti-technology, DeMarinis says he worries about such developments as recombinant DNA, in which genes of one species are spliced into the genetic makeup of another: flounder genes into strawberries, for instance, to make the fruits more frost-resistant. The notion conjures images of monsters roaming the Earth, he says.

"You can make any kind of creature if you want to. Someone will want to."

Yet "A Clod of Wayward Marl" is foremost a comedy, next a crime novel and last a commentary - a combination that puts the book in a category all its own, but marks it as decidedly DeMarinis.

Middle-aged men especially like it, the author says, but denies deliberately writing to that demographic.

"Never go for an audience," he says. "I have only one audience, and that's me."

Reporter Sherry Jones can be reached at 523-5299 or at sjones@missoulian.com.

If you're interested

Missoula author Rick DeMarinis reads from his new book, "A Clod of Wayward Marl," at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 17, at Fact and Fiction Books, 220 N. Higgins Ave., 721-2881.

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