02/04/2009 12:00 AM |

Hercules had his twelve labors. Frodo bore the ring. And Thom, in Benjamin Parzybok’s oddball debut novel Couch, hauls a giant orange sofa from Portland, Oregon to South America with the help of his two miscreant roommates. Parzybok is known in Portland for launching Gumball Poetry, a literary journal distributed through gumball machines, and a similar sense of whimsy permeates Couch (the first book Small Beer Press has ever published from the slush pile).

Parzybok tells the story of Thom, a bearish, unemployed, computer programming self-doubter recently dumped by his girlfriend; Erik, an smalltime grifter; and the prophetic waif Tree — three under-challenged twenty-something roommates forced to abandon their apartment (and take their couch with them) when a waterbed breaks in the apartment above. The couch, they find as they carry it along Portland sidewalks, changes weight depending on direction; in that way, it leads them. It’s “something with a will, or at least an impressive mystery; and it was a bit creepy.” And it gets creepier as the story unfolds.

Turns out the couch possesses great and ancient powers. Among others: “It takes away your will to wake.” (The couch-potato idea is present, naturally, but not heavy-handed.) The trio of questers is given the task of delivering it to its rightful destination (and an incredible destination it is), and in so doing, battle sharks and men with guns and yellow fever, with benevolent helpers and love interests along the way.

The plot never lumbers — we’re swept along with the couch, riding on Parzybok’s light, easy, funny prose. The novel’s visual language and dynamic bursts of dialogue make the reading experience somewhat like reading a comic book. “Erik, stop it!”/“Sorry, dude, I’m really sorry but ARRGH!” Parzybok, for the most part, nails slacker-speak, but occasionally the dialogue gets weighed down in explication.

Beyond the good old-fashioned story, Couch meditates on heroism and history, but above all, it’s an argument for shifting your life around every now and then, for getting off the couch and making something happen.