Doug Nufer has to be seen to be believed. The Seattle wine merchant with enormous glasses puts on a show when he reads. He recites from his manuscripts like they don't even exist: His body language assumes the character of his prose and the pose of his characters. Nufer has practiced literature in performance since the early 1970s, and while he's given some of the best readings I've ever attended, he saves his best performances for the books themselves.

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Only a madman could write a novel that never uses the same word twice (Never Again), and only a genius could make it work. In Negativeland, Nufer employed a brilliant formal trope to convey malaise in his characters without inspiring malaise in his readers. His latest effort, The Mudflat Man/The River Boys, takes on pulp fiction with similar agility and aplomb. But Nufer's appeal isn't that he performs literary stunts of the utmost daring—it's that his stunts encompass great stories.

The new book pays living tribute to Ace Books' venerable double-novel format. Behind two garish covers are two garish novels, which combine to tell an outlandish story of the Jersey Shore in the latter third of the 20th century. Each novel bears an old-fashioned teaser page and an ominous dramatis personae, laid out with loving adherence to pulp publishing tradition.

Set in 1965, The River Boys approaches teen rebellion from a refreshing perspective—it deals very little with actual rebellious teens. Nominally about a gang of runaways who perpetrate mischief in souped-up speedboats, the narrative concerns itself mainly with the cocktail-swilling families that live along the river.

Addlebrained since World War II, concerned resident Captain Webster tries to uphold order. "By standing alone, he risked emerging as a crank of a shrill banshee crackpot wailing doom among a smirkingly ignorant populace." Nufer delves with lurid humor into Captain Webster's world of incident reports and surveillance.

Captain Webster's daughter Noreen—"Too young to work at a summer job and too old to play in the sand," well adjusted, yet alienated—tempers the novel's cartoonishness. She comes of age amid stuck-up friends, hedonistic neighbors, and laser home-defense systems set up to thwart the River Boys. Her romantic epiphany toward the end of the novel is all the more touching for the absurdity that surrounds it.

The Mudflat Man chronicles the life of Tommy Layton: "When his parents evicted him at the age of 30, he didn't get mad—he got dirty." Tommy starts out as a great slob, and ends up as a slob of greatness. Unable to see the point of getting a job, he stays home eating peanut butter and making go-carts from lawnmower engines. A visit from his unstable sister Beth and inept brother-in-law Elvin results in a shattering (to the characters—funny, to readers) incestuous debacle.

Tommy adjusts well to post-eviction life on a nearby mudflat. He derives shelter, and hints of a religion, from garbage washed in on the tides: "...he came to believe that the mud giveth and the mud taketh away. In mud he trusted. In the beginning, mud created heaven and earth. But then, what the hell was a transmission doing here?" The situation affords ample opportunity for off-kilter rhapsodies, but after Tommy establishes himself, Nufer reins in his plot and his prose. His premise is utterly mad, but he follows through with a convincing document of mudflat life and love.

Meanwhile, Tommy's sister has fled to South America and his father has died. The abandoned Elvin moves in with Tommy's mother, where they keep track of Tommy and enter "the first stages of a gourmet-living dependency." Tommy raises a mysterious infant on the mudflat. Elvin—"a beefsteak tomato in the body of a man, going to seed without a sizzle"—invites unfavorable comparisons to Tommy, who salvages a sort of genius from his own faults and incapacities. The novel veers from adventure to meditation and back again with the insistency and unpredictability of a garbage-bearing tide.

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Each page of The Mudflat Man/The River Boys yields startlingly perfect turns of phrase. The plots inspire the kind of compulsive reading that occurs not only in the bathroom, but on the walk to and from the bathroom. Having heard Nufer read from it only served to enhance my enjoyment. As luck would have it, Nufer is reading again on Tuesday.

Doug Nufer reads at Barça (1510 11th Ave, 325-8263) on Tues Aug 22, 7:30 pm, free.