Waldo will be called a surrealist novel. It is not one. It is about nouns we know and see, not about nouns we dream. Striped toothpaste vibrating on an electric toothbrush, a fat lustful Mother of the Year, a writer on display behind plate glass typing for pleased onlookers, a biology teacher murmuring, “If I were going to give God a grade on the Universe, I’d give him a ... C-minus.” These are hilarious, but disturbing because they are not surreal. They are with us.
This is the story of Waldo, whom we first meet in the glass-walled Booneville School for Delinquent Boys, committed on charges of “truss burning, bank screwing up, and oil pouring,” all of which outrages were perpetrated on his hopeless father or his pathetic mother. After taking part in a riot in the prison cooking class, and being nearly roasted in the oven in which he was hiding from the guards, Waldo’s sentence is lengthened. Recuperating in Booneville’s infirmary, he talks to Dr. Wasserman, eye doctor and head-shrinker. Waldo’s trouble is diagnosed as “nothing to do” in a world where to be busy is to be sane.
Waldo stays poised at the edge of savagery. After leaving Booneville he meets, in Dr. Wasserman’s waiting room, the middle-aged ex-starlet Clovis Techy, who becomes his mistress and patroness. She sends him to Rugg College in order to give him “something to do.” Waldo wants to become a writer and more or less does so, in the process of which he tries to shuck off his bewildered family but becomes embroiled with far more bewildering groups of students. He succeeds in becoming the hack writer of “human interest” stories, front page grotesques which cause critics to rave and hail him as a “blazing new talent.” His duties as Clovis’ lover are the price he has paid for his success. He is left, aloft in his glass “writer’s cage” in a night club, sparse-haired, scruffy, physically a bit smaller, typing for a wildly applauding audience.
Dr. Wasserman’s advice “do something, anything” is a cure as well as a malaise; from the glass prison to the glass writer’s cage Waldo has suffered the essence of laughter, which is pain.