From the start of "Heroes Like Us," our hero, Klaus Uhltzscht, lets you know what you're in for: "You must not mind," he says, "if my recollections become a trifle dick-heavy at times." German author Thomas Brussig's satiric second novel is the story of how this dizzyingly neurotic narrator's penis played a throbbingly decisive, if semi-accidental, role in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Brussig uses the conceit of an interview as the book's structure -- each chapter is another tape reel as Uhltzscht, not yet 20, tells his life story to a New York Times reporter. The resulting narrative has the rambling, conversational feel of a megalomaniac given free reign with a microphone. And that seems to be Brussig's intention -- to let Uhltzscht, equal parts lover of socialism and Western lingerie models, crash into an occasional deep truth while being, for the most part, engaging and revealing.
Where Uhltzscht succeeds in being entertaining is when he is being the most dick-heavy. The sexual obsessions of this late adolescent paired with his recruitment into the Stasi -- the Stasi, sex and masturbation have similar veils of secrecy -- leads to "jerking off for socialism," intercourse with roasted chickens in order to better understand the enemy, fear that an STD will be sold as a state secret and homemade sex toys. The semi-parody of the secret police itself is filled with witty non-speak like "the negation of negation" and "post-post-structuralism." And, from time to time, Uhltzscht skids into profundity. Totalitarianism, for instance, is "a pygmy confronted by a giant who stands there gazing at some distant prospect visible only to him."
But there are times when you just want to turn that tape recorder off. While it's part of his charm, Uhltzscht is still arrogant and quiveringly insecure, a self-described Nobel Laureate manqui who talks endlessly, ` la Portnoy, about his own penis. This is a wacky glimpse from behind the scenes -- a German bestseller that is one of the first novels to address the fall of the Berlin Wall by an author who grew up with it. Every couple of reels, though, you find yourself longing for some anti-comic relief.