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Poetic devil's advocate on American life

There's a little bit of devil in Andrei Codrescu. On second thought, make that a helluva lot.

First of all, take a look at that impish grin, as though the man is ready to entice you into committing four or five of the Seven Deadly Sins.

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Next, just tune in to your local National Public Radio station. That ghoulishly accented commentator -- Transylvanian? Lower Slobovian? That's Codrescu. He sounds like an emissary from Lucifer himself.

Fundamentalist Christians certainly thought so a few years ago, when he gently poked fun at their belief in the Rapture. After he called it "a pre-apocalyptic event during which all true believers would be suctioned off to heaven in a single whoosh," some 40,000 angry believers, spurred by the Christian Coalition, wrote to NPR in protest.

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In the wake of this uproar, what did the sardonic Mr. Codrescu title his next collection of essays? The Devil Never Sleeps.

The name of the literary magazine he edits? Exquisite Corpse. Hmmm.

But as audiences at the Patterson Theater will see Friday, when the former Baltimore resident returns to perform his autobiographical one-man show, Radio Messiah, horns don't sprout from his brow, and there's no whiff of sulfur about him.

Still, Codrescu's latest novel, Wakefield (Algonquin, $24.95), is sure to stimulate even more discussion of his diabolical provenance. The book's protagonist is a New Orleans motivational speaker named Wakefield who makes a bargain with the devil -- a year's reprieve from death so he can journey in search of his "true life."

The author fashions Wakefield's cross-country tour into a kind of satirical three-ring circus. This time his targets aren't religious fundamentalists but feuding ethnic groups, contemporary art and art critics, New Age cultists, aging radicals turned foodies and many more. Everywhere Wakefield goes, the devil is monitoring his "progress," even though Satan is busy with a midlife crisis of his own.

This is all good clean fun, of course, served up with a wink and a nod. In person, Codrescu, 57, is part merry prankster, part earnest professor. The quips and one-liners spice up an otherwise sober, even erudite, conversation on the paradoxes of American culture and changing concepts of the devil.

He lives in New Orleans and commutes several days a week to Baton Rouge for his classes at Louisiana State University, where he is the MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English.

"It's not a bad life," he says. "The house in the country is very quiet and full of books. The university is amenable and fairly peaceful if I don't go to too many meetings. And then New Orleans is there, with its usual foolishness."

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Romanian immigrant

The accent, by the way, is Romanian. Codrescu immigrated to the United States with his mother in 1966. He was a 19-year-old aspiring poet. They were permitted to break through the Iron Curtain as part of a government program to repatriate ethnic Germans to Germany and relocate Jews to Israel. Romania's cash-poor Communist government pocketed $2,000 a head.

But the Codrescus decamped for Detroit instead of Tel Aviv. "The state of Israel paid $2,000 for my mother and me," Codrescu jokes, "so we owe it $4,000, plus interest, which I fully intend to pay if this book sells."

A penchant for laughing at whatever fate sends his way is part of his personality, Codrescu grants, but it's also a typically Romanian mode of survival. In a country run by the ruthless Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the author recalls, criticism of the regime found one of its few outlets in humor.

"Jokes were ubiquitous," he says. "They sprang up like dandelions, and they were always at the expense of the Communist Party, the bosses. They made people feel better."

In America, Codrescu believes humor allows him to get away with saying things people don't necessarily want to hear. Rather than provoke instant hostility, he ignites laughter, paving the way for readers and listeners to consider a point of view they might have found inconceivable.

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When the young Codrescu landed in Detroit, he enrolled briefly in Wayne State University to avoid the Vietnam-era military draft. But soon enough, he was drawn to New York's Lower East Side. Poetry was his great love, and Allen Ginsberg one of his gods.

Eventually, he met Ginsberg, who along with other New York poets of the '60s and '70s, such as Ann Waldman and Ted Berrigan, served as Codrescu's mentors in brashness. "The only thing I teach is courage," Ginsberg told him, "the courage to open your mouth and say what's on your mind."

Taught at Hopkins

That came in handy in 1983 when Codrescu, by then a published poet teaching at Johns Hopkins University (without benefit of a college degree himself), first began to air his witty observations on NPR.

"It gives me a way to talk about things that outrage me," he says, "that probably outrage every other citizen but they don't have an outlet like that."

As grateful as Codrescu is for the freedoms denied him in his communist homeland, he has never been reluctant to criticize an American culture shaped by capitalism. His Mr. Wakefield, in part an alter ego, is intrigued by the country's high ratio of frivolity to gravity.

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America, he asserts, is the most materialistic and most spiritual of societies.

"It's a paradox. I think it has to do with people's yearning for some sort of spiritual answer to their anxiety about material culture. This is still a very Protestant world, and there is some guilt attached to being too wealthy or having too many things."

After years of writing commentaries for newspapers (including The Sun), Codrescu has been cranking out opinions like this in book after book, including 17 volumes of poetry, eight of essays, eight of fiction and eight more of memoir.

"Being a poet is probably the essential thing," he says. "If I didn't have to make a living, I would just write poems."

For a long time now, Codrescu has been interested in the devil as a cultural touchstone. What's especially intriguing, he says, is how it underscores differences between Europeans and Americans.

In Europe, Satan has been reduced to a comic and largely benign figure in novels and operas, "a little plush toy worn around the edges ... an endearing figure that would come to make mischief."

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Meanwhile in America, the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have revived belief in the devil as a real force of evil with the power to make or break earthly events. "I want to see what exactly it is about our culture," he says, "that seems to call for the end of the world."

The new novel

In his new novel, Codrescu's fictional alchemy unites Old World and New. The Wakefield who is Codrescu's creation is no conventional Faust, holding out for riches or knowledge or the love of a woman. He merely wants to traipse about this country, observing with the vision of a Codrescu, at once amused, sardonic and forgiving.

The author's wry twist is to make him an anti-motivational speaker. It's the late '90s, when the economy has become overheated and workers are, if anything, over-motivated. Wakefield is brought in to baffle and depress them with his nonsense. Is it possible that Codrescu, who is often out on the lecture circuit, sometimes finds himself in a similar position?

"I'm occasionally hired to talk about things I have no knowledge of whatsoever," he admits with a grin. "What I do is cram. I read a lot. And they pay me well.

"But it's quite successful," he insists, "even if I end up critiquing their particular line of work. Because I make them laugh."

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