For such a short book, Geoff Nicholson's "Flesh Guitar" represents a pretty ambitious undertaking. Half sprawling, witty novel, half primer on the physical appeal and spiritual inexplicabilities of the guitar, it tries to do far too much at once -- and ultimately comes off as just so much noodling. Nicholson has built a sturdy career out of writing pleasingly wild books (like "Footsucker" in 1996); "Flesh Guitar" is probably just an instance of a hugely inventive novelist grabbing the chance to write about something he feels passionately toward and ultimately writing too much around it.
Of course, it could happen to anyone, especially with a subject this luscious. A guitar is an enigmatic and wonderful thing -- "a sexy instrument to touch and to look at, being simultaneously curvy and phallic," as Nicholson writes. But he's more in tune with the instrument than he is with his lead character, a guitar hero named Jenny Slade, who in the opening sequence wrenches such ungodly sounds out of her instrument that she makes it bleed. And no wonder: In a former life, her guitar -- which looks as if it's made of flesh, with knots in the wood that resemble nipples and pickups that "look like three parallel bands of livid scar tissue" -- was an actual human being, some poor sod who worked in a guitar store and woke up one day with strings stretched against his torso. There's much more craziness, too. We meet a bitter former guitar genius who lost his left arm in a freak chain saw accident, travel with Slade through time as she appears to famous guitarists (Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson) just before their deaths and eavesdrop on her encounters with a haughty downtown composer and scenester known as Tom Scorn (rhymes with Zorn).
Intertwined with all this fun and frolic are chapters in which a bright but annoying guitar wanker named Bob, who is Jenny Slade's No. 1 fan, tutors a woman bartender in the lore and mystery of the instrument and of Slade; we also get selections from his fanzine, the Journal of Sladean Studies. Nicholson has dry cleverness to burn, enough to make even this formless heap of a novel mildly entertaining. (A review in Bob's fanzine of a movie that traces the history of one guitar pick from ancient times to the present includes the line "The casting of Sappho was always going to be tricky, and Helen Mirren battles gamely with the role without being utterly convincing.") But there's an overactive feverishness to Nicholson's sense of invention. "Flesh Guitar" is less a novel than a novelty act, a sprawling, shapeless solo from a performer who usually seems to know what he's doing. Could be he just had an off night.