Review of The Devil Never Sleeps and Other Essays by Andrei Codrescu

St. Martin's Press 2000 256 pp. 27.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford

I am confident that Andre Codrescu is the most famous émigré from Sibiu, Transylvania, Romania. While talented and famous Romanians have preceded him into exile--Tristan Tzara, E.M. Cioran, Paul Celan, Eugen Ionesco--Codrescu remains the only Romanian with 12 million bewitched National Public Radio listeners.

The Devil Never Sleeps, his seventh collection of essays, contains a selection of his NPR reflections, along with several more extended pieces on everything from why graveyards make good places to sip coffee to how many wild dogs currently roam Bucharest.

Poet, essayist, teacher, humorist, Codrescu seems to jump from the page and onto a stool next to you in an imaginary pub, filling the air with smoke, humor, and the occasional moral outrage.

"An exile, An American, and a Jew," Codrescu emigrated to Detroit with his mother, later marryed Alice, a painter, and eventually moved to New Orleans, where he now writes, teaches, and roams.

As an exile, he's fascinated with everything American, such as the Enigma of Elvis. "Ten years made a lot of difference to Elvis and to America: He was so startled by what he'd wrought that he wrapped himself in the American flag when he heard that hippies were making love on it."

Serial killers are also worth a look as part of our understanding one of America's more evident traits, what Studs Terkel calls "national Alzheimer's disease": "When I visited Milwaukee, a journalist took me to the site of Jeffrey Dahmer's house, now a vacant lot with a big sign that said AWAITING TOTS DAYCARE."

He observes the relation between autobiography and his adopted country: "What is sure is that [autobiographies] do not end in the death of the hero, like novels, because an autobiographer cannot fake his own death. By not dying, the hero of an autobiography always triumphs. The form is implicitly optimistic and as such, American. We do not, in this country, believe in endings: we believe in success."

The most interesting section of the book concerns his native Romania, offering his collected reflections, based on a series of trips he made since the "revolution" that eliminated Ceausescu but not the excesses of an underground economy. He notes such oddities as "the suicidal generosity of Romanians," as well as their unique historical position:

"Individually and nationally, Romanians have been the most patient line standers in Europe. Historically, this patience was rewarded by the abrupt closing of the window just when they got to the front."

Countrymen Ilie Nastase and Nadia Comaneci come under criticism, but he sees in Eastern Europe much to admire, particularly in Czechoslovakia and its absorption of artistic expatriates, who are safer "with a playwright in the castle, the Republic in NATO, and the dollar worth about thirty five crowns, which will buy your starving artist two glasses of flaming absinthe and a plate of boar stew in a pivnice. I mean, it's a fine day when bohemians can actually live in Bohemia."

Eastern European public transportation guards against a too-heady adoption of the new capitalism, since "the beauty of public transport is that you cannot haul more goods home than you can carry."

There's much to learn from Codrescu, such as the fact that "the Pied Piper of Hameln, who piped all the children out of Germany, piped them over the mountains to my hometown in Transylvania." And that the aforementioned Bucharest wild street dogs are estimated to range from forty to one hundred thousand."

Codrescu's politics and sociology are Sixties-Liberal recognizable, noting as he does "the mind-boggling clichés of political scandal and the nauseating praise of business and money that waft from the open sewers of the media and politicians' mouths." However, his views are so beguilingly expressed they seem somehow more original. He represents himself as a utopian, owing to his Sixties liberal streak, but a skeptic owing to his Romanian past, "where the promises and language of utopia were used to create hell on earth. …These two minds are irreconcilable though they clearly coexist "

In the summer, "the season of alligator-deep dreams, the hour of archetypal mud-shapes that crouch at the bottom of our groggy souls," Codrescu bravely approaches the new technologies with a conflicted heart, seeing their dystopian promise, but unable to keep himself away from his AOL email.

As he sees it, "humans used to be tool-users, but now tools are human-users …

The actual content of cyberspace now is a combination of image banks and shopping opportunities disguised as information and dialogue. The data banks are display windows: The information is free but possessing it sets in motion the urge to shop its source, or its meta-content. Internet dialogue is directed either toward sex (shopping 'the body without organs') or toward networking product-development."

The greatest appeal of the book is the sheer pleasure in his evocative language, whether he's discussing socialism, "the official narcotic ideology," or his insomnia and his wish to return to "the amniotic waters of sleep." Codrescu, an urbanite Walter Benjamin with a sense of humor, remains a poet, a person who works "only at recognizing the awesomeness of the universe, which is a job, too."