Oddly, PR descriptions of East End author George H. Monahan’s new novel Artifact (Northfield Books) make it sound like a serious, suspenseful mystery: “When real estate developer Vincent Tremayne plans to clear-cut Bayview Woods, Anthropology Professor Thomas Aquinas [!] McGrath must figure out a way to stop him.” It becomes clear early on, however, that Monahan has taken to farce to fashion an over-the-top critique of subjects near and dear to the hearts and minds of East End residents. These include preserving the environment from crass and conniving developers, acknowledging and adjudicating Native American claims to local land and ensuring that differing views about how to live with one’s neighbors and nature are accorded fair hearing in the interests of justice and societal harmony.
Farce, a mode usually associated with theatre, relies on physical buffoonery, stock characters (some more absurd than others), and comic situations typically involving venality taken to an improbable extreme, though in Artifact all’s well that ends well as everyone gets comeuppance in proportion to the degree of corruption and stupidity. But how far can farce go without losing its motivating critical power and entertainment value? The answer probably depends on the cleverness of an intricately constructed, fast-moving plot and on the machinations of at least one likable character whose antics are not totally beyond the ethical pale and with whom the reader
In Artifact the game is on from the opening page. A small group of hip-sounding Native Americans from the Makanhassett Tribal Council (who occasionally invoke Yiddish words) are about to unload a “bug-infested patch of marshland” on Tremayne, a greedy real estate developer. They alone know that much of the land is worthless swamp, but Tremayne, who thinks he’s putting one over on them, pays and then shoots ahead to clear cut for condos. His ditsy wife (blonde, of course), the self-styled senior sales Rep, is hell bent on putting up a replica of an Italian fountain and immediately enlists various cut-rate services. It turns out that one guy does them all, with a different sign for the different jobs and only one assistant who spends most of his time mooning over Tremayne’s secretary. The bills mount up, as does his impatience, as does the mayhem.
McGrath wants to stop the development because it will be in his backyard overlooking the bay, and not, incidentally, destroy the environment. Little does he know that when he reluctantly accepts an adjunct position to teach anthropology at Peconic Community College, his wacky adult ed. students will support his efforts by way of forming a Save the Bayview Woods Coalition. Happy that his boring academic life now seems significant, he’s a little slow in seeing just what a loony bunch of loyalists he has inherited. He’s pleased, of course, that a Cultural Impact Survey will delay Tremayne’s plans for a while, but he hurries matters along, anyway, by fabricating a historical artifact and planting it on the disputed property.
Meanwhile, his little band of student lunatics has banded together and, with the aid of the sensationalist media, gets the Stirling Harbor Village Court to hold an impact hearing. McGrath has second thoughts about his fraud once a former student, now working for the state, gets involved, but it’s too late. The situation is out of control. Things go bump in the night near where he buried the phony artifact, and speculation grows about a government cover up, fueled by archaeoastronomy nut cases who believe that the woods may contain remains of an endangered species—Sasquatch, a.k.a. Big Foot—thus proving, against scholarly evidence, that Neanderthals did indeed migrate to the New World. It’s a cute romp, with some engaging dialogue and zany scenes, though readers may find the concept and execution diffuse and strained.