"Someone smarter than me once called America's small towns the lost continent." So says Cody "Razzle-Dazzle" Kellogg, a radio DJ who's only one of the multitude of colorful characters populating Patrick Wensink's new novel, Fake Fruit Factory. That "someone smarter" is the real-life writer Bill Bryson, whose 1989 book The Lost Continent helped open the country's eyes to a disappearing way of life: The slow, idiosyncratic pace of small towns that have fallen off the grid of mainstream American culture.
In Fake Fruit Factory, Wensink creates an off-the-grid small town of his own. Dyson, Ohio — population 2,334 and falling — is almost mythic in its mundanity, a speck on the map with only three claims to dubious fame: It calls itself Christmas City USA for keeping up Yuletide decorations year-round, it's a place where Abraham Lincoln once stopped to use the bathroom, and it's the Imitation Fruit Capital of America. That last distinction is the only one that still matters to Dyson. The local FruitCo factory, which makes the plastic, decorative fruit that was commonplace during America's tackier times, was once the town's economic engine.
But with FruitCo in decline, the town's 28-year-old mayor, Bo Rutili — the fourth-youngest mayor in the country, as he halfheartedly reminds himself — is about to launch a revitalization campaign called Destination: Dyson. That name takes an ominously surreal double meaning when a NASA representative named Derrick Eggleston shows up to inform Bo that a satellite is predicted to crash in Dyson in three days' time. The National Guard is called in to evacuate the residents, a situation that's complicated by a conspiracy theory being circulated among the townspeople that the whole satellite scare is a hoax — not to mention the fact that Rajula Magbi, host of a reality show called America's Boringest City, has chosen Dyson as her next subject. And Bo as her next target of a different kind.
This madcap sprawl of quirky characters and outlandish developments is only the tip of the iceberg. The cast of Fake Fruit Factory reads like a rogue's gallery, from the diabolical banker (and Bo's former mayoral rival) Donna Queen, who wants to foreclose on the town's $10 million debt, to, well, a mummy. Yes, a mummy. There's a bandage-wrapped person wandering Dyson, adding yet another layer of mystery to a town built on them.
It all sounds like Twin Peaks meets Scooby-Doo, and it is — but in the best possible way. Wensink lays bare the foibles of small-town life, but also its charms. His characters tumble off the page, in all their cartoonish glory, but there's empathy at the heart of the absurdity. Dyson's residents cling to their decaying town despite the fact that there's no more daily mail delivery and the local newspaper has shrunk to a single, computer-printed page. Wensink loads his kinetic narrative with piercing irony as well as dry humor; the satellite that's threatening to crash into Dyson, it turns out, was actually built in Findlay, a prosperous neighboring city whose big-box chain stores have helped turn Dyson's downtown into a ghost town.
For all its chaos, Fake Fruit Factory is tightly plotted and beautifully contained. The entire story takes place over the span of a week, each chapter's day and time carefully noted, which lends the story an air of urgency — even as it perpetually outdoes itself in terms of rambling weirdness, teeming details and tangential character sketches.
It's an overstuffed buffet of a book, but Wensink keeps it fresh. He's also making a statement about America as a whole, both satirically and sentimentally: The satellite that's on a collision course with the anachronistic town of Dyson might as well symbolize the future. Ultimately, Fake Fruit Factory is a microcosm of an entire nation having to come to terms with the skeletons of yesterday, not to mention the fears of tomorrow. It's Wensink's warped world, but there's no denying we live in it.
Jason Heller is a senior writer atThe A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.