Everyone knows that a song cover flops when it's too faithful to the original; imitation becomes interesting only when it ventures into new terrain. By that yardstick (and plenty of others), "Roger Fishbite" is a terrific accomplishment. Emily Prager has written what she describes as a "literary parody" of Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" from the nymphet's perspective, transforming the famous '50s schoolgirl into a '90s teenager, a postmodern kid who paraphrases Ricki Lake and Henry Fielding.
What prevents the novel from devolving into an inside joke is the enthralling voice of Lucky Linderhof, who, at nearly 15, tells her tale with the world-weariness befitting an elder statesman of child abuse. Right off, she pegs her mother's boarder-boyfriend as an oily weirdo, dubbing him "Fishbite" for his cold, unblinking stare. Fishbite, she says, "was not the first grown-up who liked me. They always did." No innocent, Lucky gives as good as she gets, competing for Fishbite's attentions with her mother, a raging Sinophile who collects opium pipes and bound-feet shoes -- the ultimate in oppression chic. Lucky complains that her mom kowtows to Fishbite: "I think he wants a stronger, more feminist type like me but I'll have to watch him. Men can be perverse." The perversity Lucky dreads most, of course, is indifference.
A onetime comedy writer and columnist for the National Lampoon and Penthouse, Prager has hit upon inspired material, a story that's both expansive enough and zany enough for her offbeat talents. "Roger Fishbite" -- a sly mixture of social exposi, riffs on TV talk shows, feminist revision of male-fantasy literature and teenage buddy tale -- is the most engaging work she's come out with since her first story collection, "A Visit From the Footbinder," was published in 1982. Her sendup of the tony private schools Lucky attends is unparalleled. Each night after dinner at the Chutney School, an anorexia-and-bulimia specialist gives an inspirational lecture to keep the girls from vomiting. Lucky makes it a policy to befriend the war criminals' children, reasoning that these kids are so darling because their "fathers take all their meanness out on the citizenry." At times, Prager gets carried away with her own silliness. In the last 50 pages, Lucky forms a political action group called World's Hapless Infants, Notice Everyone! (WHINE!) to protest the child sex trade in Thailand. As a set piece it's certainly entertaining, but it digresses too far from the Fishbite plot and the book loses momentum.
In the end, Prager's novel is a negative of Nabokov's, dark where his is light and satiric where his is serious. If "Lolita" explores a middle-aged man's twisted but heartfelt passion for a young girl, "Roger Fishbite" works as black comedy, portraying an indifferent society that destroys its own children. Never is Lucky more affecting than when she lets down her guard and acts like the kid she is. Of her sordid adventures with Fishbite, she writes: "I had not yet reached the age when doing wrong excited me. I'd rather have gone back to school and gotten A's. I was beginning to do well at geometry and, frankly, I missed it."