The Pickup Artist
Terry Bisson
Tor Books, ISBN 0-312-87403-0
Review by James J. Walton

In this future dystopia many artists and the entire body of their work have been banned from society. Why? So new works of art can be created without undo criticism and comparisons. Museums which once housed masterpieces now exhibit bare walls in tribute to the new political correctness. It is the responsibility of the Bureau of Arts and Information, via its field agents, to catalog and collect all examples of banned art works and turn them in for destruction.

Henry Shapiro is one such field agent, known euphemistically as a Pickup Artist. Henry Shapiro is also a very lonely man. He lives in a small house with his pet collie, Homer. He has no interests outside of his job and brooding about his life. The type of lifestyle which makes him perfect for a Grand Adventure.

Shapiro's curiosity about a particular piece of art leads him to an involvement with Henry (short for Henrietta) a woman with a shadowy past. He, of course, soon finds himself on the wrong side of the law. He is not the first lonely man to be lead astray by a pretty face (or, in this case, a nice pair of breasts) and he knows he brought his problems onto himself.

Shapiro, convinced he can save his job if he has enough sick time, begins a cross country trek in search of a banned Hank Williams album. He is accompanied by Henry, who may or may not be an agent for a subversive organization, Cowboy Bob, who is dead but talks a great deal, and Homer the collie.

Of course the object of the journey is not nearly as important as the journey itself, (though Shapiro might disagree) and what our characters learn about themselves and the country.

Bisson's sense of humor makes The Pickup Artist a mixture of Dante's Inferno, Kafka's The Trial, and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It is ridiculous and frightening at the same time.

Bisson sends Shapiro through a United States both absurd and plausible. As we follow Shapiro as he wanders through a mountain of garbage being excavated by people who pay to be there we at first say "No way!" then we think a moment and say "Well, if certain things happen...".

How did Shapiro's world become so strange? As the reaction to runaway technology and a senseless and deadly act of terrorism. The real rulers of the western world, the business men and the entertainers, pooled their resources and worked out a method for cleansing the arts. A billionaire software company owner named Mr. Bill and a has-been movie actress form the nexus of a shadowy group bent on changing the way the world thinks.

The Pickup Artist may be too cerebral for some tastes and too buffoonish for others (how is that for contradiction?) but I found it entertaining.

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