Mark Leyner isn't the best-selling writer in America, but he may be the buffest. With just 135 pounds on his 5-foot-7 frame, the author of "My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist" and "Et Tu, Babe" can bench-press 220 without breaking a sweat. He's a little guy who goes to the gym to get huge, even though fiction is where Leyner does all his heaviest lifting.
His new book, Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog (224 pages. Harmony. $19), is a willfully random collection of magazine humor pieces, lunatic ravings and one-liners composed "while listening to Mahler in the afternoon." In a brief three-pager called "The (Illustrated) Body Politic," Leyner conducts a mock-investigative report on tattoos worn by U.S. senators: "A DNA double helix attached to a ball and chain means: 'My sibling is a convicted felon'." Elsewhere, his febrile mind dreams up new fragrances ("Bastard," made from the pineal glands of death-row inmates) and transposes Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown: to a ludicrously extravagant New York department store in a playlet dubbed "Young Bergdorf Goodman Brown," Leyner, 39. is a hyperbolist. a wild exaggerator of his own world and the one around him. With his pumped-up prose and steroidal satire, it's easy to see why he's become the new Hunter S. Thompson to the online generation. He's a hero in cyberspace, if not in the literary establishment. You could call him the Quentin Tarantino of cult fiction: they both have an obsession with pop ephemera and a wickedly violent sense of humor. And although "Tooth Imprints" is Leyner's most accessible opus to date, it is emphatically not for everyone. Then again, what good book is?
"I really don't like there to be a line in my book that isn't in neon," Leyner says. Sitting in the orderly basement office of his modest house in Hoboken, N.J., he rails good naturedly against "depressing books about people in trailers" getting more literary respect than comic novels, which he complains have become a "disreputable" genre. An award winner for his college fiction at Brandeis, Leyner toiled in obscurity for years, writing fiction for little quarterlies and ad copy for medical journals like Urology Today. Then The Mississippi Review ran one of his short stories in an all-cyberpunk issue, Harper's reprinted it and suddenly he had a big agent and a big contract for his 1992 novel "Et To, Babe" -a brilliant riff on celebrity culture starring a famous musclebound writer named Mark Leyner who surrounds himself with a corporate entourage ("'ream Leyner") of bodyguards and minions.
Likably self-absorbed, Leyner writes about what he knows and loves best: himself. His rambling semi-autobiographical style is his strength and weakness. He's so nonlinear that you can pick his books up and put them down on just about any page-which is why he's giving his next novel a beginning, middle and end. "Jerry Lewis's remake of Marcel Proust's 'Remembrance of Things Past"' is how he describes the new work-in-progress. Facing down 40 must be maturing him. Paternity is a running theme in "Tooth Imprints." Leyner's 21-month-old daughter, Gaby, inspired "Dangerous Dads," an essay instructing aging gonzo dudes how to reconcile "history's honorifiics of virility 'brigand,' 'defiler,' 'conquistador,' "warlord'"-with being a sensi-guy father. Even buff bad boys have to grow up sometime.